Porcini and Scallop Tartlets

I really like cooking at Christmas time, and this year I had the responsibility of making a starter. I kind of feel like this is the most creative course in Christmas dinner, as you know the kind of thing you are going to get for the main and pudding. What’s more, Christmas this year was spent with the inlaws, so that starter had to be good- since they knew about my culinary hobby, I had a reputation to keep. With all this in mind, I decided the course was worth a bit of effort, and instead of using a recipe, I tried to come up with something myself.

Designing a course from scratch can be a tricky business- mainly because there are so many different ideas out there. So how did I go about it? Well, first off, I decided I wanted the starter to contain mushrooms as the main idea. Mushrooms are highly underrated, especially as most people only have tried the boring varieties you can find in supermarkets. Furthermore, I think they are a great Christmas flavour, work as a starter before turkey, and pair well with wine.

Next, I had to figure out how to serve them. I remembered my mushroom picking trip in Denmark, and the mushroomy meal we had. One of the courses that stood out to me was some mushroom tartlets- simply mushrooms in pastry with sauce, but since the flavours were brilliant, it worked really well. Mushroom tartlets it was.

Then to decide what other flavours to go with the mushroom tartlets- which meant a trip to a book I often use for designing courses: The Flavour Thesaurus. This book simply lists flavours that go well with other flavours. For mushrooms, you have suggested flavours like anise, apricot, asparagus, bacon, beef, chestnut, dill, egg, and so on. For the mushroom tartlets, I originally got intrigued by ‘blue cheese’, thinking of something like ‘mushrooms on Gorgonzola polenta tartlets’, but blue cheese is not the favourite of Mrs. Oxfood. After considering a few more flavours, I settled on scallops, chestnut, bacon, and mushroom tartlets. Very seasonal, I thought.

Now that I had decided what to do, it was time to do a practice run. I was going to make the tartlets out of puff pastry, but didn’t know whether or not to trim the pastry before or after cooking- I’d only made shortcrust pastry tartlets before. So in the practice run I did one tartlet trimmed, one untrimmed. The untrimmed tartlet puffed everywhere, and it was very hard to get the pastry out of the tartlet case. Trimmed tartlets it was. A practice run can help you get various presentation things right, as well as knowledge on how long various cooking tasks take, what can be easily cooked beforehand, or how thick to make a sauce. Your dinner that evening might not be as nice as it could be, but you’ll get the dish right when you have to make it for real.

The tartlets went down very well (as well as very quickly). I paired them with a pinot noir from Burgundy, which has with it lots of earthy and “sous-bois” (under-wood) flavours. Pinot noir is also an acidic wine, so could cut through the creamy mushroom sauce. An obvious, but very enjoyable pairing. Overall a great starter, which followed a lovely Christmas lunch- but I’ll make this recipe again.

Porcini, Chestnut and Scallop Tartlets

Porcini, Bacon, Chestnut, and Scallop Tartlets

Serves 8. You’ll need mini tartlet tins for this, they are a good investment for starters. A muslin is also useful for passing the porcini mushrooms through. I used ready-made puff pastry, just because of the time constraints, but it’s worth having a go at your own.

Ingredients:
50g dried porcini mushrooms (porcini mushrooms are also known as ceps)
200g chestnut mushrooms
8 rashers streaky bacon (as good quality as you can afford)
8 scallops, roe removed
12 chestnuts
2 packs (2 x 250g) ready-made puff pastry
450ml double cream
1 sprig thyme
2 tsp dark soy sauce
8 sage leaves, to garnish

Recipe:
1. Cook the ingredients. Heat the oven to 200ºC. Fry the bacon until crispy, and dice into small pieces. Pierce the chestnuts, put in a baking tray, then put the baking tray into the oven for 30 minutes. Wait until the chestnuts have cooled a little, then shell, and dice the chestnuts into small pieces. Pan-fry the chestnut mushrooms for around 15 minutes until their moisture has been removed. Dice the chestnut mushrooms into small pieces.
2. Make the sauce. Soak the porcini mushrooms in 500ml water for 20 minutes. Keeping the mushroom water, pour the mixture through a muslin. Add the double cream, thyme sprig, and soy sauce to the mushroom water, and reduce the sauce down until it is at the desired texture. When the sauce is done, remove the thyme sprig. Pan-fry the porcini mushrooms for around 5 minutes.
3. Make the tartlet cases. Heat the oven to 170ºC. Roll out the pastry to the thickness of around a pound coin. Cut into a size big enough to cover your tartlet case, then put another tartlet case on top. Repeat with the rest of the tartlet cases you have. Bake in the oven for around 15 minutes, until the pastry is cooked. Keep doing this until you have made all your tartlet cases.
4. Assemble the tartlets. Warm the ingredients if necessary. Pan-fry each of the scallops for around 2 minutes each side until they are cooked. Place the cooked scallops in the middle of the tartlets, and fill the rest of them with bacon, chestnut mushrooms, and porcini mushrooms. Pour a little sauce on the plate, put the tartlet on, and garnish with the chestnut and sage leaves.

Making Tartlet Cases

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Food and Wine Pairings III: Creating a meal around sweet wines

Often when I start out cooking a meal for guests, I have no idea what to cook. It’s not that I don’t have enough ideas, although sometimes I am less inspired, but too many, thanks to many good cookbooks and internet sites that are available. I can never consider a dish and say to myself, “yes, that will be really good”, and know that there is not a better choice out there. Similarly, you want the courses to complement each other, it’s no use doing smoked salmon to start, and then salmon for the main. This is all before the practicalities of the dinner are considered- how much time do I have to cook, how much can I spend, when can I get any specialist ingredients, for example.

Lastly, there is the wine. Perhaps not so important to some, I really feel line a good food-wine pairing can make or break a meal. You need the right wine for each course. If I don’t have the bottle I want at home, I don’t want to put a wine order in for just one bottle, so that might change what I want to cook. Little things, like the seasoning of a dish, can make a big difference, too. So recently, I’ve taken a reverse approach to planning meals for guests: start with the wines I want to drink, then figure out what I can cook which will work. I’ve found it remarkably helpful, as you move from “I could cook almost anything” to “I have to cook something very specific”. Also, it’s a fun challenge and learning experience for my food-wine pairing skills.

A friend came around recently who I know has a sweet tooth. So I thought, why not try some sweeter wines throughout, and see if I can’t find the right food to go with them? If I went wrong, the wines would still be good, and the food would still be good, just not as good together. Equally, this would allow me to experiment a little with flavours, particularly the sweet-savoury match. All the wines I had planned came from The Wine Society, which I thoroughly recommend.

Course I: A salad of pan-fried scallops, pancetta, warmed goats’ cheese, roasted fig, and cos lettuce.
Wine pairing: Vouvray Les Coteaux Tufiers Demi-Sec 2010.

The wines we drank. From the right: Vouvray Demi-Sec 2010, Trimbach Gewurztraminer 2010, Royal Tokaji Late Harvest 2010.

The wine here is a demi-sec (meaning semi-dry), a chenin-blanc from Vouvray, in the Loire valley in France (on the right of the picture). What the demi-sec translates to is a small amount of residual sugar, not something we noticed in the main body of the wine, but in the finish, there was just a touch of sweetness. Otherwise, a fairly neutral wine, with good acidity to cut through food. At £7 a bottle, this wine was great, and I imagine would be very popular in general.

This, I think, was the best pairing of the night. With so much going on in the salad, particularly with the goats’ cheese and fig, the wine didn’t need to contribute much in terms of flavour. But the acidity, working with the lettuce, calmed everything down and balanced the meal out nicely. The sweetness worked well with all of the components, perhaps not surprisingly as they are often paired with sweet things themselves. (Of course, with the pressures of entertaining, I forgot to take a photo of the salad, so you’ll have to live with a photo of the wines instead.)

Course II: Monkfish and Tiger Prawn Crêpe, Sauce Saffron Suprème, Curried Squash.
Wine pairing: Trimbach Gewürztraminer 2010.

Gewürztraminer is a grape which typically gives you stone fruit flavours, spice, and lychee, in a medium bodied, medium alcohol framework, with no residual sugar. It comes from Alsace in France, a region close to Germany, so no surprise that a lot of grape varieties which are traditionally German, like Riesling, are grown there. The body, alcohol, and acidity here are important- being a bigger wine than the Vouvray, it needs to be given something a little more robust, food-wise.

The robustness here comes in the sauce. The monkfish, prawn, squash, and crepe were all relatively light, really just providing flavours and textures. The sauce is thick and heavily saffron flavoured, in some sense providing the bulk of the dish. Overall I would say that I think I tried to do too much here, the dish was too complex (although sadly not in colour), too many flavours and textures were present. Perhaps something simpler, like a simple sea bass dish, would have provided the backdrop for the wine to do its thing better. Still nice, but not the pairing I was hoping for.

Course III: Giant Macaron with Raspberries and Peach Cream.
Wine pairing: Royal Tokaji Late Harvest 2010.

Here I had a dilemma I often have with a meal. My guests have brought a bottle of wine- a nice one at that- but I’ve already planned a wine for a certain course  (or a course for a certain wine). Do you alter the meal and drink the wine they bought, or do you go with what you had planned? In this case, the choice was reasonably easy, as I was planning a white Bordeaux, but it could be easily substituted by the Tokaji. For those who haven’t met Tokaji before, it’s a Hungarian desert wine, made from a grape called Furmint, and is well worth checking out.

The macaron itself doesn’t add a lot of flavours to the dessert, so you can consider this, flavour-wise, as raspberries and orange with peach cream. The fruit flavours complemented the wine well, but I feel like anything reasonable you put with pudding wine is going to be great. The Tokaji was a nice bottle, and was allowed to express itself fully with the fat in the cream, tartness of the raspberries, and juiciness of the orange. I’ll do this one again.

If you are interested in food-wine pairings, check out my other posts on food-wine pairings, Food and Wine Pairings: The Blind Tasting Black Tie Dinner, and Food and Wine Pairings II: Wines for a Wedding. Also, The Wine Society has a great section on food-wine pairings, and a good food-wine matcher.