In the UK, there is a very popular foodie game show called Ready, Steady, Cook! It's a lot of fun: two celebrity chefs are paired with contestants and have to come up with a variety of dishes using ingredients brought by the contestants. They have 20 minutes and generally come up with a minimum of five dishes each. Granted, they have the contestants to help out, as well as the charismatic host, Ainsley. But they only have 20 minutes.
My respect for these chefs has gone up enormously after this edition of Is My Blog Burning?
And I was only cooking a measley three courses for the Critic, no competition and no studio or TV audience. (Though I did have the Critic shouting out every five minutes "Is it done yet? Why is it taking so long?" It was a fatal mistake to tell him I was trying to make dinner in half an hour.)
Actually, I thought I would have an edge in this event after all my afternoons watching Ready, Steady, Cook! The number of tricks and short-cuts I've picked up from this show is impressive. You see them impassively consider the raw butternut squash a contestant has inconsiderately chosen and you know the wheels are going around and around. You learn the quickest way to pre-cook almost anything (that electric kettle is a Godsend, as is the microwave oven) and how to creatively cut food so that the surface area is maximised. I thought I knew it all. I was wrong.
I wanted to prove that it's possible to make a fairly elegant dinner in half an hour without resorting too much to pre-prepared ingredients and using seasonal ingredients. Luckily for me, the asparagus appeared in our local supermarket for the first time on Friday. Unfortunately, they did not have any rhubarb, which was my first choice for the dessert. Well, actually, in the end that could be classed as a "fortunately" too, as it meant that I had to be creative and came up with a lovely little dessert.
So here was the final choice:
Tender Asparagus Spears with truffle oil and a balsamic reduction
Beef Tournedos à la Rossini with Pommes Dauphinoises
Apple and Berry Crumble
As you can see here, I did my best to get everything I could possibly need assembled before starting the clock. I didn't chop or wash anything but I know how the one essential ingredient that I use once a year can successfully hide in my cabinets while I curse and stomp around. So I got that truffle oil out first and tried to think of every pan or bowl I might need. Of course that left very little counter space, which was to be a source of some stress once I got going.
Here's how it went, roughly. I didn't take notes. I barely took photos. I came in about five minutes over the wire, but I'm calling that "plating time". Or alternatively "should have washed the spinach before starting" time. Or you could just conclude that it takes a better chef than I to make this dinner in 30 minutes. You might be right.
30 minutes: preheat the oven to 200c. Slice two potatoes in thin rounds, about the thickness of a pound coin or two quarters. Butter a small casserole and rub it with the cut edge of a small garlic clove. Layer the potatoes slices, overlapping them slightly in the casserole. You don't want more than two or three layers or the potatoes won't cook in time. Beat a half cup of cream with an egg and drizzle over the potatoes. Cover with about half a cup of grated gruyère cheese. Place in the hot oven.
25 minutes: peel, core and roughly chop two apples. Toss them in a bowl with a tablespoon of flour, a tablespoon of sugar (or less, depending on how sweet your apples are) and a third of a cup of mixed dried berries. Place them in two buttered ramekins. In the small basin for a hand blender, place 30 grams of butter, 20 grams flour, 20 grams of brown sugar. Pulse until it's crumbly and sprinkle generously over the apple and berry mix. Place in the oven, preferably on a lower rack than the potatoes. (I didn't and they came out a bit too brown on top.)
18 minutes: wash a lot of spinach as quickly as possible.
13 minutes: turn on a high flame under the cast-iron grill pan.
12 minutes: chop the bottoms of the asparagus and put them in a frying pan. Use the kettle to quickly bring to the boil some water. Pour it over the spinach and over the asparagus, cover both pans and turn on the flame.
11 minutes: begin melting a few tablespoons of butter in a non-stick frying pan. Slice a shallot finely and add to the pan. Crush the garlic from the potatoes and add it too. Wash and quickly slice a dozen small mushrooms thinly.
7 minutes: slap the tournedos steaks on the pan. Stir the mushrooms. Add some water to the spinach. Check the asparagus.
6 minutes: turn off the heat on the asparagus and turn up the heat on the spinach. Will it never cook? Turn over the steaks.
5 minutes: check steaks. Decide they are not going to be done in time and rummage through the cabinets for the bacon press, eventually finding it on the counter next to the sink. Place on steaks.
3 minutes: test the potatoes and panic because they are not yet tender. Slap the casserole in the microwave on high for two and a half minutes.
2 minutes: add cream to mushrooms.
1 minute: plate the asparagus, drizzle with a little truffle oil and dot the plate with balsamic reduction. (Okay, yes, two prepared ingredients there. So sue me...)
0 minutes: take first plate out to impatient Critic, taking the time to take a less than perfect photo first.
Run back to kitchen, use tongs to remove a pile of spinach from the pot, draining as best you can by squishing it against the side of the pot. Plop a steak over it and cover with the mushroom sauce. Carefully remove a serving of the potatoes and add to the plate.
Photograph (badly) and give to impatient spouse. Turn off the oven and remove the crumbles. Totally forgot to photograph them.
Somewhere in there I seasoned things. I forgot to put any other spices in the sauces. The kitchen looked like a tornado hit it by the time I was done. A meal for two generated enough dishes to fill the dishwasher. But I (sort of) made it under the wire. I think I lost a few years off my life in the process.
And how did it all taste? The spinach was very old and tough and the Critic flatly refused to eat his. I ate some of mine, but next time I'm cheating and using the pre-washed tender shoots. The critic ate the tender points of the asparagus but refused to eat the ends. I wasn't too insulted as I've seen him do that in nice restaurants; he's very picky. The truffle oil was heavenly on the spears. I didn't even bother with balsamic reduction on mine because it would have masked that gorgeous truffle flavour. The potatoes, despite my panic, were the best part of the meal: creamy and ever so slightly garlicky and tender, with a crusty cheese topping.
The steaks, again despite my panic (or more likely because of it) were over-cooked.
And the crumble was delicious: hot and sweet and crumbly. The berries, despite being soaked in natural fruit juice (according to the label) were actually a bit tart, complementing the soft sweet apples perfectly.
All in all I have to say that being under time pressure does NOT improve the quality of my cooking. No big surprise there. But I am now a humbler cook. And a wiser one.