Monday, April 19, 2010

Degustation Delights

On Friday night I entertained dinner guests and decided to put together a degustation menu using new season's ingredients. I haven't done a degustation menu for a while, but I always love creating a menu in this style. I enjoy being able to have a little of this and a little of that, and the joy of creating something that will flow from course to course. The challenge is always to balance variety and texture - to have enough contrast to make things interesting but to not make those contrasts jarring to the palate.

The menu began with a creamy chilled soup of cauliflower and leek, flavoured with a hint of roasted garlic and finished with cucumber and delicious salty salmon roe. The soup can also be served hot, but I really enjoy starting a degustation menu with something cool and fresh tasting. Although the soup is velvety and creamy, serving it cold gives it a lighter dimension. The natural sweetness of the vegetables is a nice contrast to the salty explosions of salmon roe and the fresh cucumber.

Course number two was a mushroon ragout tart - the ragout was made with four different types of mushroom - Porcini, Shitake, Enoki and Oyster varieties. I used a simple shortcrust base and teamed this with a horseradish cream - a combination of horseradish, organic natural youghurt and creme fraiche. The earthy, savoury nature of the mushrooms really shines through when teamed with the tang of the horseradish cream.

Course number three was duck and fennel ravioli served simply with sauteed asparagus and parmesan. The filling was made with duck breast meat, parmesan, caramelised onions and fennel, garlic and a touch of nutmeg. I bought the duck breasts on the bone and after I removed the meat that I needed, used them to make a batch of rich duck stock which I have stored in the freezer. I am already thinking about what I will use the stock for. The rich flavour of the duck meant that it did not need an overly complex sauce - I used Danish Lurpack butter, a touch of salt and some pepper and the asparagus and that was all. This allowed the flavour of the duck to take centre stage.

After the richness of the duck it was time to lighten things up - I chose a salad of watercress, sweet roasted pumpkin, buffalo mozzerella and pomegranate seeds. I made a dressing of extra virgin olive oil, white balsamic, garlic and a touch of maple syrup. I like using watercress as a salad base - the peppery bite is a nice contrast to sweeter ingredients such as the pumpkin and maple. The tartness and texture of the pomegranate seeds works well with the creamy mozzerella - and who can resist that gourgeous ruby colour?

I really love game, so I decided on venison for the fifth course. I marinated vension rump for 24 hours in olive oil, garlic, crushed juniper berries, a splash of white balsamic and a touch of dijon mustard. The meat was then cooked in a pan with a touch of butter and allowed to rest for 10 minutes before carving. I teamed the venison with a puree of potato and parsnip, caramelised balsamic beetroot and a stuffed zucchini flower, which I filled with fresh herbs, ricotta and a touch of lemon rind. For the sauce, I did a stock reduction with redcurrant jelly and a touch of bitter chocolate. The chocolate works beautifully with the venison - but it is only used in very small amounts, just enough to add some richness and complexity to the sauce.

And finally, dessert - I took fresh figs, split them in the centre and baked them for 10 minutes drizzled with honey. Once they were out of the oven, I filled them with tangy fresh raspberries. I accompanied them with honey, pistachio and glace pear icecream that I made ealier in the week. I made the icecream in a loaf tin and served slices instead of scoops. Figs and raspberries are my two favourite fruits, so this was a great way to indulge in both!

One of the challenges of doing a degustation menu is the logistics of the menu - choosing dishes that will not require you to be stuck in the kitchen for the whole evening when you should be drinking wine and being fabulous with your guests. For the above menu, I made the icecream a few days before. I did the filling for the duck the week before and froze the filling - that way all I had to do was defrost it and complete the final tortellini making at the last minute. I also made the caramelised beetroot and stuffed the zucchini (which can be a bit fiddly) the day before. I pre chopped all of the salad ingredients a couple of hours before the guests arrived and also made the sauce for the venison and the potato/parsnip puree. On the night, all I had to actually cook was the zucchini flowers and the venison, heat the figs and do the tortellini.

If you have never tried a degustation menu, don't be daunted. Just make sure you plan well and that you don't choose overly complex dishes that require lots of attention for every course - balance it with some simple dishes such as salads, or soups or terrines that can be made ahead. I find that the work of creating a degustation menu is totally worth the rewards of seeing delighted guests feeling pampered and indulged. I had a ball creating this menu for my guests on Friday night - it was a fun night full of lots of laughter and lots of wine.

And finally, a good degustation menu is nothing without good friends to share it all with, so choose your guests well. Thanks to Chris, Michela, Susan, Mary-Lou, Damon and Andrew for being such fabulous company and riotously entertaining dinner guests on Friday night - a fantastic evening :)



  1. Dear gourmet goddess, you are truly a goddess. The delights I had on Friday night were heavenly!

    Love Chris (Lucky Friday night guest).

  2. It was a pleasure - so glad you guys enjoyed it so much :)