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Turning over a new Leith
6:00am Saturday 19th October 2013 in Lifestyle
Leiths Cookery School has turned hundreds of keen amateur cooks into proper chefs and its new 'bible' makes its full range of techniques and recipes available to the home kitchen, the authors tell Andy Welch.
For two decades, Leiths Cookery Bible has been among the UK's bestselling cookbooks.
A manual written by Prue Leith, who founded the prestigious Leiths School Of Food And Wine in 1975, it featured all the instructions and techniques the aspiring home cook needed.
After 20 years, however, it was time for an update. While Leith sold the school years ago, its reputation as one of the world's finest catering schools remains, which the new 'bible' needed to match.
Step up Leiths: How To Cook - more simply titled than its spiritual predecessor but no less informative and, thanks to the countless colour photographs inside, much prettier to look at.
"The main aim was to not rewrite that Bible," explains Jenny Stringer, the school's deputy managing director and former private chef of Prince Charles.
"In our books prior to this, we've never been able to have the huge amount of images, but because we wanted so many recipes in there, and so many descriptive pieces, we wanted to get as many images in as well.
"And we wanted to get recipes as close to the over-the-shoulder advice you would get from an instructor as possible."
How To Cook isn't your standard cookbook. It's 800 pages long for starters, and while there are hundreds of recipes to choose from - all definitive takes on a range of classics - the technique tutorials are where it really comes into its own.
Do you want to know the difference between slicing, dicing and chopping an onion, and the correct way to do each? How about boning a chicken, or making lamb noisettes? Or the different characteristics sugar goes through when heated? Look no further. It's possible this book covers every technique a chef needs, and provides a recipe that utilises the skill.
"That was probably the most difficult thing about writing it," says co-author and Leiths principal Claire Macdonald. "We wanted a book we could use on our various courses, from the one-day types through to the full diploma, but of course it has to be relevant to the wider public too."
Stringer continues: "As for the recipes, we go for the classic where we can. Jointing a chicken is followed by the recipe for coq au vin, for example. Choux pastry is followed by a recipe for profiteroles, but we also worked hard so it wasn't completely traditional. Classic French cuisine is at the heart of the book, but that's because it contains core skills every chef needs.
"The point is you learn those skills and you can apply them to any cuisine in the world."
Work on the book started in 2011, with the bulk of the writing beginning a few months later. Each and every recipe was painstakingly tried and tested and converted from imperial weights and measurements to modern metric.
"We had to rewrite as many as possible so that the quantities were proper, round amounts - 100g here, 150g there," says Stringer. "All were updated to use metric cake tins and flan cases as well. The simplest testing can take days and days, but it was worth it to get it right."
Macdonald says she's particularly pleased with How To Cook's fish and seafood chapter, and recommends aspiring cooks begin with the chapter on vegetable preparation and knife skills, before moving on to slightly more rewarding dishes - desserts.
Stringer's favourite section is the glossary of kitchen terms. Did you know, for instance, that 'braised' does not refer to anything that's slow-cooked, but specifically to something cooked in a confined space resting on a mirepoix - that's diced carrot, onion and celery to the layman.
"Does that make us pedantic?" she says, smiling. "Yes, probably, but we are a cookery school, that's the whole point."
Here are three dishes on which to practise your skills.
:: Za'atar crusted prawns with a bulghar wheat and herb salad
20 raw prawns
2-3tbsp olive oil
3-4tbsp za'atar (available in selected supermarkets, or see below for recipe to make your own)
½tbsp plain flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
:: For the salad
100g bulghar wheat
1 red onion
1tbsp olive oil
½ bunch of dill
Bunch of flat-leaf parsley
¼ bunch of mint
:: For the dressing
5 tbsp olive oil
Pinch of ground sumac
½-1tsp clear honey
A note on za'atar...
This Middle Eastern condiment is a mixture of sesame seeds, dried herbs and ground sumac (a lemony flavoured spice). To make your own, lightly toast two tablespoons of sesame seeds in a dry pan over a low to medium heat. Tip onto a plate to cool, then transfer to a small food processor bowl with 50g sumac, two tablespoons of dried thyme, one tablespoon of dried oregano, half a tablespoon of dried marjoram and one teaspoon of coarse sea salt, then pulse until ground to a coarse consistency. Makes 150-200g. Za'atar is delicious as a dip for crudites or stirred through yoghurt to make a sauce for grilled meats.
Peel the prawns, leaving the tail tip intact, then clean, carefully removing the intestinal tract (the dark vein along the back). Set aside in the fridge.
For the salad, prepare the bulghar wheat by putting in a small saucepan and adding enough water to come 3cm above the level of the wheat. Simmer, uncovered, over a low to medium heat for about 10 minutes, until just tender. Drain well and scatter over a tray lined with kitchen paper, then cover with kitchen paper to absorb the moisture.
Halve, peel and finely slice the onion. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a low heat and add the onion. Cook gently until just starting to soften, then increase the heat and allow to brown a little. Remove from the heat, drain the onion of excess oil and transfer to a large bowl. Heat the oven to 120C.
Halve the pomegranate and extract the seeds by holding cut side down over a bowl and carefully hitting the skin side with a rolling pin or the back of a wooden spoon.
Cut the cucumber in half lengthways, deseed by scraping the length with a teaspoon, then finely dice. Pick the herbs into bite-sized sprigs or very coarsely chop. Add all these ingredients to the onion.
Once the bulghar wheat is dry, add it to the bowl. Cut the lemon into wedges and reserve for serving.
For the dressing, juice the lemon and orange. Mix one tablespoon of each with the olive oil, sumac, honey and salt and pepper to taste. Whisk to combine, then set aside.
Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in the frying pan over a medium heat. Mix the za'atar and flour with some salt and pepper in a large bowl. Dry the prawns and add them to the bowl. Toss in the za'atar mix to coat.
Fry the prawns in batches until pink and the tails have curled, around three to four minutes. Keep the cooked prawns warm in the low oven while you fry the rest, adding one tablespoon of oil to the pan for each batch.
Add the dressing to the salad and toss together. Divide the salad between four shallow bowls and arrange the prawns on top. Serve with the lemon wedges.
:: Pan-fried breast of guinea fowl with morel and bacon risotto
30g dried morel mushrooms
Few thyme sprigs
4 boneless guinea fowl breasts, with skin (use chicken if you can't find guinea fowl)
35g unsalted butter
2tbsp olive oil
75g piece of bacon (or lardon)
1 garlic clove
250g mixed wild mushrooms, including morels if possible
1 litre homemade chicken and veal stock or good quality bought chicken stock
300g Arborio rice
100ml dry white wine
30g Parmesan cheese
Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 170C. Put the dried morels in a small bowl, cover in boiling water and leave to soak for 30 minutes.
Finely chop enough thyme leaves to give you one tablespoon, sprinkle all over the guinea fowl breasts and season with salt and pepper.
In a large ovenproof frying pan, melt 15g of the butter with one tablespoon of the olive oil. Over a low to medium heat, fry the breasts, skin side down, until golden brown, which will take about five minutes. Turn the breasts over and transfer the pan to the oven to finish cooking for about 15-20 minutes, while you are making the risotto. Once cooked, the guinea fowl can be set aside to rest while the risotto is finished.
To make the risotto, de-rind the bacon and cut into small dice (no need if you are using lardon).
Halve, peel and finely chop the onion and peel and crush the garlic. Wipe clean the wild mushrooms and tear into bite-sized pieces. Heat the remaining olive oil in a large saucepan and add the bacon. Cook until lightly browned, then add the onion. Cook over a low heat until the onion is very soft, then add the garlic and fresh mushrooms and cook for a further two minutes.
Heat the stock in a separate pan. Strain the soaking liquor from the morels into the pan. Roughly chop the soaked morels.
Add the rice to the onion and mushrooms and stir until the rice is coated in oil and heated through.
Add the wine and simmer until it is absorbed. Add the morels and a ladleful of stock, and stir until it has been absorbed into the rice. Repeat until the stock has all been incorporated. This should take about 25 minutes. The risotto is cooked when the grains are al dente and the mixture is still sloppy, rather than dry or stiff. Add more stock or some hot water if necessary.
Adjust the seasoning and then beat in the remaining butter and grate in the Parmesan. Stir well, cover with a lid and leave to stand for five minutes. Meanwhile, finely chop enough parsley to give you three tablespoons.
Carve the guinea fowl breasts by cutting into three of four pieces on the diagonal. Stir the parsley through the risotto and serve a small mound on each plate, topped with a guinea fowl breast. Sauteed morels would be a lovely extravagant garnish.
:: Vanilla bavarois
1tsp sunflower oil, to grease
300ml double cream
1 vanilla pod
1½ sheets of leaf gelatine
4 egg yolks
60-75g caster sugar
:: To serve
Fruit compote or fresh berries
Very lightly oil four dariole moulds. You could also use a small ramekin. Lightly whisk the cream in a bowl and set aside in the fridge until needed.
Pour the milk into a saucepan. Split the vanilla pod in half lengthways, scrape the seeds out into the milk and add the pod. Bring the milk slowly to scalding point over a low to medium heat, then remove from the heat and leave to infuse for about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, put the gelatine sheets in a bowl, cover with cold water and leave to soften for five to 10 minutes.
In a separate bowl, mix the egg yolks and sugar together, using just 60g to start with; more can be added to taste later. Pour the flavoured milk onto the egg yolks, stirring steadily, and return the mixture to the rinsed-out saucepan. Discard the vanilla pod.
Stir the mixture continuously with a wooden spoon over a low to medium heat, until it thickens enough to evenly coat the back of the spoon and becomes a thin custard. Remove from the heat.
Remove the gelatine from the water, squeeze out any excess water and add the gelatine leaves to the warm custard. Stir gently to dissolve the gelatine, then pass the mixture through a fine sieve into a bowl.
Place the bowl over an ice bath (a larger bowl half full of ice cubes and cold water) and begin stirring gently. Stir continuously and gently to ensure an even cooling and setting, until there is a visible thickening, and when a spatula drawn through the middle of the mixture creates a 'parting of the waves' (when the mixture parts briefly, for three to five seconds before flooding back together). The custard must come to this point (known as the 'setting point') to hold the vanilla seeds in suspension. Remove the bowl from the ice bath and gently fold the lightly whipped cream into the mixture.
Pour the bavarois mixture into the prepared moulds and chill in the fridge for a few hours until set, or overnight.
To unmould the bavarois, suspend the moulds in warm water just to the rim for five seconds; just enough time to melt the surface of the bavarois. Remove and gently release the bavarois using the tip of your finger or thumb. Invert onto a serving plate and, while holding the dariole and the plate, give everything a good sideways shake; this should release the bavarois from the mould. Wipe away any melted bavarois as cleanly as possible, using dampened kitchen paper. Serve with a fruit compote, roasted fruit or berries.
Three of the best
:: SKI Dessert Style Lemon Cheesecake Flavour, £1.68 (currently £1) for pack of four, Asda
Just tart enough, and packed with little chunks of cake, these are tasty yoghurts and a welcome change to regular flavours.
:: Duchy From Waitrose Organic Blackcurrant Yoghurt, 82p for 140g pot, Ocado
Expensive for what amounts to a few spoonfuls, but worth it for an indulgent treat. Full of fresh flavour, rich and smooth. Delicious!
:: Rachel's Organic Low Fat Raspberry Yogurt, £1.89 for 450g pot, Sainsbury's
Smooth and creamy but with only 2% fat. Switch from the full-fat version and it's difficult to tell the difference.
:: Leiths: How To Cook by Claire Macdonald and Jenny Stringer is published by Quadrille, £30
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