As it was Valentine’s Day (or more precisely the evening before, and I didn’t yet know what delights would present themselves at Guestrant) I fancied doing something a little more glamorous for a dinner for two, and wanted to explore a couple of whimsical thoughts. Luck and judgement conspired to help create something a wee bit different and classier than my normal fare… in this case venison steak, butternut squash bullets, spinach and potato gratin, and steamed asparagus tips.
This all stemmed from a desire to do something new with roast butternut squash. It’s probably best to confess these are one of my main kitchen standbys, as they last for almost as long as a block of halloumi in the back of the fridge, ready to be wheeled out for some tactical support when other options are a little thin on the ground. Normally I either dice it or halve it before roasting in the oven, but I’d wondered whether there was a way to seal in the sweetness and give a bit more warmth to each portion. I decided to perform surgery on the squash with a corer, then coat each of the plugs, or bullets as I’d prefer to call them, with Miss South’s wonderful crabapple jelly and some Spanish pimenton. They certainly looked pretty enough after painting, and then they went into a medium-hot oven in a roasting tin with goose fat. Within minutes they smelled fabulous.
I had a couple of venison leg steaks in the freezer, sourced as usual from Paul at Stansfield’s in Todmorden Market, and last December had enjoyed a similar cut with a generous lump of anchovy butter. Flavoured butters rock. I’m not sure it’s possible (or indeed worthwhile) to make a small portion of anchovy butter. In this case it was half a pat of local salted butter, a generous handful of flat leaf parsley, and a tin of Spanish anchovies, mixed together into a paste, before being rolled in clingfilm and chilled.
After the initial application I’ve been raiding slices of it for… well, just about anything which’d be enlivened with judicious piscine emulsion. Baked potatoes are divine, fresh pasta needs little else for a quick preparation, poached fish fillet gets its kick from the buttery goodness. You get the picture. So it was a a shoe-in to quickly sear the steaks in foaming anchovy butter to release all the umami goodness. While they were resting I used the juices from the pan, together with a little blood and some chicken stock to make a light jus. Bit too light to decorate the plate with, as it happens, but rather nice n’er the less.
After my recent experience making Jansson’s Temptation the pleasures of the layered dauphinoise-esque gratin spud hadn’t receded from my memory, so out came the chopper for some thinly-cut potato action. I keep promising myself a mandolin, but I’ve heard too many stories of damaged digits to be fully persuaded of their merits. Originally I wanted to make two individual ramekins of gratin, each filled with layered potato and baby spinach, but a little voice at the back of my mind told me this could be a faff rather than a fine photo opp, so I carefully layered everything into a baking tin, with the intention of cutting out portions afterwards.
Spinach loves nutmeg, so I grated some into the seasoned double cream, together with some pecorino and tried to make everything look as pretty as possible before placing it into the oven. Once the gratin was done I did try to cut out an immaculate tower of veggie goodness, but these collapsed with a relaxed, good-natured insouciance. I was never cut out to be on Masterchef anyway…
Finally, as it was almost Valentine’s Day, I chose to finish everything off with a few asparagus spears, steamed gently for a couple of minutes. I don’t normally buy asparagus out of season (because British truly is best) but I relented just this once… and was later called on it by a good friend when I recounted the meal. Guess that’s what happens when one exchanges ethics for eroticism… I stand suitably chastened.
Dessert was simple fare, made from some frozen summer berries, softened and reduced down to a compote with a splash or two of homemade damson gin and the vitamin C-rich goodness of rosehip syrup, made by my friends at Height Top Barn. I have rather a soft spot for stewed fruit at the best of times, and augmenting the fruit with the additional flavours gave it a lift, which paired well with some vanilla ice cream. Damnably good all round…