21 September 2012

"Meat, poultry, or fish broth served hot or cold as a soup course"
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that Larousse has 29 different recipes for consommé - this is classic French cuisine after all, the sort of word that belongs on the menus of grand (or just plain stuffy) hotels.

Of course, I've made clear broths before: dashi, the intensely savoury Japanese stock, from ribbons of dried bonito and giant sheets of kelp; or more recently a light vegetable stock with a splash of cider, with cubes of home-cured pork belly and wild garlic leaves thrown in. But I've never made a consommé. In fact I don't think I've ever even eaten (drunk?) a consommé. After all, when would I go to that kind of restaurant?

What elevates the humble broth to a consommé is the meticulous process of clarifying and reduction, which is meant to give a perfectly clear liquid, free of fat, but with a rich mouth feel from the gelatin remaining in the stock. In fact, Larousse suggests chilling consommé to form a jelly and serving it diced, which sounds fairly unpleasant.

Insert stock pun here

Like many classics, it takes time. I started on Thursday, fitting the preparation around work, a university reunion and resultant hangover, my flatmates' cooking; it's now Sunday night and I am getting hungry, and much more in the mood for a bacon sandwich than a clear soup. But the result is exquisite and aromatic, like a richly savoury tea, and surprisingly filling. I served it with poached chicken quenelles and a parsley leaf - the clear yellow broth delicate enough to pick up the astringent freshness of the parsley.

It all starts with the jointing of a chicken, yet another thing I've never actually done. 'Nothing to be afraid of', Delia says briskly, and she's quite right. I cut it into quarters, and filleted the breasts and thighs - the rest went into the pot for the stock, together with the usual stock vegetables and some rosemary 'foraged' from the nearby gardens. After bringing to the boil, skimming, and simmering gently for a couple of hours, it went into the fridge overnight to let the fat rise to the surface.

Tasty tasty meat paste
While the stock came gently to the boil, the breast and thigh meat went into the blender, loosened with a little double cream, until I had a pinkish paste that would look equally at home in a Chicken McNugget as in haute cuisine. Really for the finest texture this should be pushed through a sieve, but I just couldn't face it.

Larousse uses beef suet as a base, but not having any to hand, I made a choux paste instead, boiling butter and water together before beating in the flour, followed by two yolks and two whole eggs (Normally you'd just use whole eggs; I kept back two egg whites to clarify the soup). A little salt and nutmeg, before mixing about half in with the chicken purée, and back into the fridge. The rest of the paste I later turned into gougères for a pre-dinner snack.

I did say it was unappetising. But you looked anyway.
A couple of days later, and it's time to clarify the stock. The traditional method is to gently boil the stock with an 'egg raft' of egg white, diced vegetables and ground meat, which is coagulates in the pot and enmeshes the fats, protein, and suspended solids that make it cloudy. Modern cuisine has found a number of different ways to achieve the same effect, but Larousse naturally brooks no truck with these upstarts.

So on the heat it all goes, for another couple of hours, as the egg white mixture turns from foam, to scum, to clumps, looking progressively more unappetising as it goes. But when drained through a damp tea towel - bliss! A perfectly clear, yellowish broth, with a taste somehow both clean and rich.

Time then to pull the quenelle mix out of the fridge, shape (clumsily) between two spoons, and drop into gently boiling water for 20 mins or so, before placing into bowls and ladling the broth around them. A garnish of a single parsley leaf, and it's finally dinner time.

Et voilà

The result, as I said, was rather fine: savoury, aromatic, elegant and pure in colour and taste. The quenelles were deliciously chickeny, if I may use that word, but seemed a little coarse by comparison. Next time - and there will be a next time, despite all the moaning about how hungry I was by the time I got to eat it - just a teacupful of the pure broth by itself would be all that's needed to signal the start of something special.

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