Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Consummating a marriage

I remember my Mum recounting to my sister and I a story of how she used to be taken to visit her grandmother for afternoon tea. Before they were allowed to get stuck into the various cakes, tea and sandwiches they were expected to eat a slice of unbuttered brown bread and have a glass of water. This was to show a degree of humility and ensure that they had the proper appreciation for the treats that were in store. This wasn't so far from the war years and rationing was just ending.
I occasionally feel that a nice bowl of consomme does a similar thing at the start of a meal. Made well it can be a kind of thrifty starter, of course if you're going for a real fine dining approach to consomme it can be made with fine meats, but a stock with a bit of extra mirepoix can go a very long way. A little bit of basic clarification leaves you with something quite beautiful, just off clear, with a little sheen of the fats still present just begging to coat your palette and get you ready for dinner.
As starters go it has several great benefits, it's not too filling, so you can usually manage a couple of other courses afterwards. But secondly it's beautiful limpidity means that you can garnish it with all sorts of baby veg which will float appealingly beneath the pale surface. Here in Hungary they're quite fond of cracking a quail egg into it just before service, meaning that it poaches ever so slowly as you eat the soup. Tempting you with it's creamy yolk and ghostly white.
Of course, it's not the most vegetarian of options, but I'm sure a rich vegetarian stock could quite easily be prepared with simple agar clarification, which would please most.
Unfortunately I've found that guests in restaurants where I work often look upon consommes as being a bit of a cop out, too liquid and watery to justify the price of the dish and not dazzling enough in terms of obvious technique (regardless of how much skill goes into their preparation). Which is a shame because I really like them a starter.
Oddly when you look at them they're not so far from the broth base of dishes like Vietnamese Pho which is super fashionable at the moment..... what price tradition? I'd certainly always prefer a good consomme to any amount of foam or excess reduction.

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