How to Cook (Sort Of) Like Heston
If you’ve looked at the “about us” page at the top of this blog, you’ll have noticed that if there’s two things I really enjoy in food, it’s rediscovered historic recipes and novel modern cooking techniques. Heston Blumenthal is a chef that often combines both to spectacular effect. His TV series Heston’s Feasts saw him re-imagining historical flavours and concepts in his own showy style. It was probably the most entertaining piece of food TV there’s been in years. Partly inspired by the success of Feasts, Heston opened his first London restaurant, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, on the edge of Hyde Park in 2011. Less than two years later, it has a Michelin star and has been named the 7th best restaurant in the world. Last week was my birthday and, as a truly excellent birthday gift, Professor Plum got us reservations for dinner at Dinner. I was not to be disappointed.
The restaurant takes inspiration from a variety of English recipe books through history before Heston and head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts, Heston’s right hand man and former Fat Duck head chef, add contemporary techniques to make food that’s both flavoursome and fun. The picture above is the restaurant’s best known example of Heston’s love of a culinary trompe l’oeil, a spin on mediaeval “Meat Fruit” where a chicken liver paté is covered in a mandarin jelly coating to resemble the small orange. Not only does this look impressive, but the sweet orange flavour really added something to the fatty meat element. The spectacle didn’t end there, though, with pineapples spit roasting by an open fire in the visible kitchen and a trolley of ice cream frozen in front of you using liquid nitrogen just part of the delights on offer. A full review of my birthday Dinner will be Sunday’s Light Bite, but first I wanted to see how well I could manage to replicate something of Heston’s Dinner.
Let’s be honest, there’s two types of restaurant food – the kind that you order and it inspires you to incorporate something similar into your own regular cooking and the kind that you order because you’d never have a hope of making something similar at home. Heston’s spit roast pineapple and liquid nitrogen definitely fall into the latter category, but the main courses are marginally more conventional. For all it’s strange name, restoration era inspiration and vacuum packed, water bath cooking method, the “powdered duck” seemed the best bet for something I could approximate myself.
The menu described the dish as: “Powdered duck breast with smoked confit fennel & umbles”. On asking for some further detail, the waiter explained that “powdering” was an archaic term for brining the duck breast with a spice mix and that “umbles” were duck hearts. This is then cooked using the sous-vide method of water bath slow cooking that Heston is something of an evangelist for. In his book Heston Blumenthal at Home, Blumenthal describes sous-vide as: “clean, efficient, versatile and friendly”. As ever, he has a slightly touching concept of how likely it is for people to be cooking like this in their own home, saying, faintly implausibly, that: “it ought to have as big an impact on home cooking as the fridge”. I’m yet to be entirely convinced of the magic of the water bath method. The powdered duck was lovely, but I don’t know if it necessarily would have been any worse cooked in an oven. I was fairly sure that I could brine and slow cook a duck breast in my own kitchen, but where to start?
Many restaurants add a list of sauces to their menu, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, though, is perhaps the first I’ve been to to add a list of sources. As all the dishes have their origin in traditional English cooking, the menu is able to cite the original cookbook that provided its inspiration. In the case of the powdered duck, this is Hannah Woolley’s 1670 work The Queen-like Closet (or, to give it its full title, The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet Stored With All Manner Of Rare Receipts For Preserving, Candying And Cookery. Very Pleasant And Beneficial To All Ingenious Persons Of The Female Sex – brevity not being at the forefront of the restoration era cook’s mind). If you want a sense of the difference between Hannah’s time (and its recipe books) and ours, the second recipe in her book is for “Plague Water” (also good for smallpox, measles and surfeits). Still, she promises “a very full Direction for all kinds of Food both for Nourishment and Pleasure”, so how hard can it be to follow her advice?
Quite hard, as it turns out. Here’s the entirety of her thoughts on duck: “192. To boil a wild Duck. Truss and parboil it, then half rost it, then carve it, and save the Gravie, then take Onions and Parsley sliced, Ginger and Pepper, put the Gravie into a Pipkin, with Currans, Mace, Barberries, and a quart of Claret Wine, and a little Salt, put your Duck with all the forenamed things into it, and let them boil till it be enough, then put in butter and sugar, and serve it in upon Sippets. 193. To boil a tame Duck. Take your Duck and truss it, and boil it with water and salt, or rather Mutton broth, when it hath boiled a while, put in some whole Spice, and when it is boiled enough, take some white wine and butter, and good store of Onions boiled tender in several waters, with a little of the Liquor wherein the Duck hath boiled, and a little Salt: put your Duck into a Dish, and heat these things together and pour over it; and serve it; garnish the Dish with boiled Onions and Barberries.” When your recipes are about the same length as your book’s title, Hannah, that is not what most of us would describe as very full direction!
Equally, this seemed to show very little similarity to the dish that I had at Dinner. A quick google search for “powdered duck” in an attempt to provide further inspiration turned up solely entries on Heston and his restaurant. So where does it come from really?
The inspiration for this dish, in actual fact, appears to be Heston’s friendship with food historian Ivan Day, whose vast expertise in historic cooking sees him appearing on virtually every TV history documentary with a culinary interest (in fact, he was on the TV in the evening as we got back from Dinner). Ivan has given demonstrations at the museum where I work on a few occasions and he has a massive well of classic cookery knowledge and skills. In At Home, Heston recalls visiting Ivan at his home. “Once he served me a confit of smoked duck with fennel as a garnish. I really liked the combinations, started playing around with the ingredients and this [a recipe for fennel in smoked duck fat cooked in the sous-vide method] is what I came up with, essentially a confit of fennel.” This is exactly the smoked confit fennel I was served at Dinner and At Home offers a recipe even for those incapable of sous-vide, so I decided simply to follow Heston’s recipe on this element of the dish.
Unfortunately, duck hearts proved difficult to get hold of in the supermarket, so my powdered duck had to be without its umbles, but I could manage the brining and cooking even without a water bath. Heston recommends a low-level brining to break down muscle filaments to tenderize the meat and to improve the muscle cells’ water holding capacity, allowing them to absorb the flavours from the brine far more than they would from a marinade (a concept he backs up by referring to a time he put a marinated chicken breast in an MRI scanner). I decided to use this approach rather than boiling the duck in the salty water as Hannah Woolley suggests, purely because it would be easier to stop the duck becoming excessively salty, while still allowing me to infuse it with the sort of aromatic elements Woolley suggests – ginger, pepper and mace.
I’ve never smoked anything before and I’d barely even heard of smoking fat rather than meat or fish itself. Heston, though, suggests smoking everything from sugar and salt to water, so fat (after all the main element that makes smoking fish or cheese so popular) isn’t too much of a stretch. I invested in some oak wood chips, apparently a good flavour enhancer for duck, and improvised my own smoker from a disposable barbeque. After a couple of hours of leaving a bowl of duck fat in the smoky wood chips I had something that I hoped would give that Heston Blumenthal flavour to my final dish. In the absence of a water bath, I simply slow cooked the sliced fennel in my smoked fat for hours at 90˚C.
After all that brining, for about as long as it took to smoke and cook the fennel, and rinsing the salt away, I cooked the duck slowly, rendering the fat for about 15 minutes on the lowest heat my hob can manage whilst still actually giving out heat. After cooking for a couple of minutes on the other side and around five in the oven, my duck was ready to taste. And how close had I come to the powdered duck at Heston’s Dinner?
Well, as you can see from this somewhat pale and blurry picture, I wasn’t thrilled with how I’d made it look. I didn’t exactly capture the elegance of Michelin star presentation and my sauce seems to have mostly split into some fatty blobs. I enjoyed my experiment in smoking and the smoked flavour definitely added something to the fennel, which, however, had a not wholly desirable oily texture. The duck, though, was the high point, juicy, tender and full of flavour it was the homecooked element that I enjoyed as much as the restaurant one. I’ll definitely give brining, or even powdering, more of a go in future, even if it will take a few goes to make it look totally presentable!