Leiths: Advanced Term, Week 3

It is quite hard not to be impressed by someone opening a bottle of sparkling wine with a massive knife. There’s no escaping it: it just looks awesome. This was demonstrated by our most regular wine instructor, Richard: he’s a great presenter who isn’t averse to a bit of theatre. Starting the week with sparkling wine, smoked salmon, and strawberries is an excellent way to mitigate Monday morning languor, and I’d thoroughly recommend it, although I understand that most workplaces might not be so obliging. I did not waste a drop of the alcohol we were given to taste, and was happily buzzy by lunchtime after a morning of Prosecco, Cava, Champagne, and even an English sparkling wine. It was probably my favourite wine lecture so far, although I am still absolutely terrified about the WSET Level 2 exam which is bearing down on us.

I wasn’t feeling too clever on Monday afternoon, but luckily it was a prep session in the kitchen with no services and not much to report. The only thing I have a picture of from Monday is this very dramatic storm that swept over West London as I was leaving school. Behind me was brilliant sun and ahead was a sky that can only be described as ominous. Needless to say, within five minutes of this photo being taken I was completely drenched, having walked straight into the danger zone.


Phil and David treated us to a sous vide dem on Tuesday morning. I do find sous vide very interesting, and it’s certainly fun to play with, but I have to say, it’s not exactly my cooking style of choice. Also, it’s a bit galling to spend a year being taught to cook things to perfection in pans and on hobs, using skill and all our senses to determine when things are ready, only to find that the same effect can be achieved with a vac pac machine, a temperature probe, and a timer. And several thousand pounds. Still, the food was lovely, particularly the caramelised white chocolate ice cream, and we got to see a lot of technical cooking, such as the experiment with varying times and temperatures for cooking with short ribs, pictured below.


In the afternoon we made rabbit ravioli from scratch – homemade pasta dough, rolling and cutting by hand, braising our own rabbit, the whole deal. For once, I was really happy with the way my dish came out. It could have looked prettier, as always, but I didn’t get any negative feedback, and making your own ravioli is incredibly satisfying. It’s the sort of thing I could I technically do at home but never would get around to, so it was great to get the chance at school. Also great that someone else did the rabbit butchery so I didn’t have guilty thoughts about adorable pets.


Wednesday began with a dem from Sue and Ansobe, a winning combination we had never experienced before. It was a shellfish dem, so Ansobe obviously wore lobster socks to fit in with the theme, and there was a general atmosphere of merriment, slightly tempered by the fact that Sue and Ansobe had to kill crabs, langoustines, and lobsters in front of us. They did so very calmly and professionally, but I’m not sure I will be quite as collected when it’s our turn. I’m a hypocrite, you see: I am very happy to eat anything, but not so enamoured with the idea of killing things myself. I love animals – not just the obviously cute and fluffy ones, but pretty much everything, and I could very easily become attached to a crab or lobster given sufficient opportunity. More on this to come, I’m sure.

The afternoon saw our second foray into the weird and wonderful world of clearing, this time in the guise of a roasted tomato and red pepper consomme. It’s not particularly evident from the picture below, but my consomme was lovely and clear, and my garnish (which we were asked to serve on the side so as not to mar the soup, this wasn’t just some odd presentation whim of mine) was praised too.


Unfortunately, it all went a bit downhill with my tart tartin and vanilla ice cream. My hand made puff pastry was fine (thank God, as it took hours), but my apples weren’t caramelised enough and I still can’t quite work out why. Full disclosure: the picture below is of my table partner Jack’s perfect tart, as I forgot to take a photo of mine before it was ripped into for service and then rapidly eaten by me. I mean, it wasn’t technically good, but I’m still not turning my nose up at an apple tart.


On Thursday we had what was basically, for me, the dem of dreams: plated desserts. As anyone who has glanced at this blog or met me in person for more than three minutes will know, I have a worrying sweet tooth and would probably live on chocolate brownies if I could get away with it medically. Annie and Jane delighted us with a range of gorgeous and complex dessert plates, including Peanuts, Popcorn, and Caramel, Fennel, Lemon, and Olive Oil, and my obvious clear favourite, Textures of Chocolate. They also treated us to chunks of one of my favourite things: caramelised white chocolate. It’s tricky to make without a sous vide machine, but I will be trying to recreate it in an oven soon and using it in a recipe, or perhaps just gorging on it until I cannot move.

In the afternoon we served two dishes and I had a minor breakthrough: I was actually happy with my plating and presentation for both. Below is my sous vide egg, cooked in a water bath at 63 for 1 hour and served with asparagus, Parmesan, and truffle oil. The picture at the very top of the post is of my pan-fried scallops with picked mooli, breakfast radishes, and an Asian style chilli, peanut and coriander dressing. My egg dish received praise, and my scallops were pretty good, save one big sucker who was a bit undercooked. I still totally ate it, of course.


Ben Tish, then man behind the Salt Yard group of restaurants, came to visit us on Friday morning, and cooked us some absolutely delicious food, including baby squid stuffed with chorizo and some amazingly tender grilled octopus. I wish there was a place in Oxford where I could buy this stuff, but sadly octopus is a bit hard to come by here. Ben was a great guest and I think at least half the group left with immediate plans to book a table in one of his restaurants.


In the afternoon we served two dishes, although one of them had so many components that it felt like serving about six dishes. The first was a salsify and purple sprouting broccoli salad with a herb and caper buerre noisette. Having never cooked salsify before I had pretty much no idea what I was doing – it’s sort of like a cross between a parsnip and a Jerusalem artichoke, for anyone wondering – but it all seemed to turn out alright in the end. We also made sous vide lamb with (deep breath): wilted spinach; lamb and thyme jus; smoky baba ghanoush; mint and lemon yoghurt, and a courgette and harissa cous cous. I did absolutely nothing pretty with the plating and just shoved everything into ramekins, because really – lamb jus with baba ghanoush and yoghurt? Seriously?


So that’s me done for now. Over and out on Week 3.