Cooking a dish in 70 minutes
16 April 2018
Another series of Masterchef has just finished. I’d gotten out of the habit of watching, to be honest, because the UK Masterchef went through a phase of such continuous repetition that it just irritated me beyond reason. But I came back to it again this year, and it seems to have calmed down (although Masterchef Australia remains head and shoulders above it) and it was great fun to watch.
The skills you need to cook in such a contest are always impressive. Not only do you have to have sufficient command of cooking technique that you will execute flawlessly under considerable pressure, but you also need to do it on a tight deadline and - sometimes - having had only 10 minutes to choose your ingredients from a limited range of options.
If you’re a foodie and you watch such programmes, the most natural thing in the world is to watch and ask -- could I do it?
So in an admittedly limited experiment, I decided to find out.
The first step came in Waitrose. I had ten minutes to get my ingredients from whatever was there. Now I always thought the key to this exercise is to choose your protein very quickly, since the other ingredients should naturally follow. And the point is not to get blinded by choice, but to focus in straight away on great produce that you know you can cook. So I very quickly went in on some lovely duck breasts. Once I knew that was what I was dealing with, I got some celeriac, some double cream, an orange, some white wine and chicken stock, shallots, green beans and fresh beetroot.
I might have worried that this was playing safe. Duck with an orange sauce, along with celeriac purée - well, these are classic flavour combinations. The beetroot added an additional element, but hardly a radical departure from food preparation as we know it. But then the first round of the contest you just need to produce a tasty fault-free plate of food. It doesn’t have to be inventive. It doesn’t have to push the boundaries. It just has to be good.
In any case, I can imagine that if you go into such a contest for real, you will do a lot of preparation. Two or three ideas - of your own or from other sources - of flavour combinations to go along with a number of proteins you’re likely to encounter. I didn’t do that, so I reverted to what I know.
Then it came down to the 70 minute cook. I had the ingredients laid out, but no prep done, when the clock got started. Now I don’t know what the Masterchef rules are about using bought chicken stock - half of the time you will see people making their own stock from the carcasses of their protein source. But we have to start somewhere, and I gave myself that much leeway at least.
I knew the sauce had to be started first, as I wanted a lovely deep rich flavoured sauce, and that meant significant reducing down. So I sliced up a couple of banana shallots and softened them in some oil, along with a couple of chopped cloves of garlic. Once those had softened but without colouring, I added a glass of white wine and allowed that to bubble away until almost evaporated. Then I added the juice and zest from the orange (holding back two tablespoons of the juice) and the chicken stock and gently let that simmer away.
Once that was going, I could peel and cut the celeriac into chunks, put it into a pan of salted water and get that up to the boil.
The next step was to peel and spiralise the beetroot. I wanted the raw beetroot to provide texture and crunch, which it could do nicely if spiralised and mixed with a vinaigrette, which was made with 50/50 virgin olive oil and sunflower oil, along with some white wine vinegar and the remaining 2 tablespoons of orange juice, plus some salt and pepper.
By this point, the celeriac was soft, so I put it, along with about 25g butter and a couple of hundred ml of double cream, in the blender and blitzed it until smooth - adding a little more double cream as needed to get a smooth, creamy texture, and then adding sea salt and the end and blitzing again to make sure it was fully mixed in. Obviously this is all about taste - I’m not following a recipe here, so I have to add salt a little at a time and taste it. Which is pretty much what you should do anyway, even if you do have a recipe.
Then I prepped the green beans - topping and tailing them, and scored the skin of the duck to enable the fat to render, and we were ready for the final cooking stage, which was just as well because there wasn’t much time left on the clock. It’s amazing how quickly it goes.
Duck into a dry, medium hot pan. I wanted to pan fry it initially at the right temperature to melt the fat under the skin whilst perfectly cooking the breast. I also put a big pan of water on to boil. When cooking green beans, you want to be able to toss them into water that’s at a rolling boil - a large enough body of water that the addition of the beans doesn’t stop it from boiling. They then get around two minutes cooking like this, and then removed and immediately rinsed under cold water to stop them from cooking any more. That way you should get vibrant green beans with bags of flavour and a bit of a bite to them. Perfect.
But I didn’t do that until the duck breasts were removed from the oven (having been cooked for an additional minute on the non-skin side in the pan and put into the oven for a few more minutes). The duck needed some time to rest properly, and on this timing it was going to get about eight minutes, which I hoped was enough. Then it was time to reheat the celeriac, add the vinaigrette to the beetroot, adjust the seasoning in the sauce and pour in the duck resting juices and cook the green beans.
There was just two minutes on the clock. I had no time to do anything much if it turned out the duck wasn’t cooked right. Heck, why do people do this to themselves on national TV, I wondered. It was stressful enough doing it in the privacy of a home kitchen! I sliced the duck in segments. It was cooked nicely in the middle, but - my big fail for the dish - the skin wasn’t crispy enough. Damn. No time to correct.
Celeriac purée onto the plate. A generous turn of beetroot in the vinaigrette. Green beans laid in the middle. Duck slices laid on top of the celeriac, with the rich sauce spooned over the top. Time’s up. Done.
What did I learn? The attention to detail with your main element is the most important thing. I would probably have gotten away with my less-than-crispy skin in the first round, since there are usually more egregious errors in other parts of the room - but when people get knocked out, it’s often the ones that failed to handle their main element properly that are the ones to go. Serving up meat or fish that is raw in the middle is the number one sin but even avoiding that basic fail, you need to understand exactly what needs to happen with that protein and make sure it gets delivered flawlessly.
But otherwise, it was a nicely balanced, delicious plate of food. The orange sauce was a delight, and the contrast of textures - with the creamy celeriac and the tender-as-you-like duck, alongside the bite of the green beans and the crunch of the beetroot - just a really good plate of food. Ah, but that duck skin.
Of course, that’s the easy version. If I really wanted to test myself, I would be setting myself one of the more creative briefs that come later in the competition. Something to think about …