Recipe for work

NOMA usurped El Bulli from the coveted top spot and moved Heston Blumental’s Fat Duck into third position in The San Peligrino’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards in 2010, making the Norweigian eatery the best on the planet.

Now chef Rene Redzepi, the man behind Noma, has just published a cook book.

But does being the best restaurant in the world mean you have the best recipes?

Noma’s book is HUGE and beautiful, gracefully made, but oh the recipes! As with Noma I would love to visit the Fat Duck but that does not mean I cut out Heston Blumental’s recipes when he wrote for The Sunday Times. In fact I gave them a cursory glance, thought rather him than me, and went back to mashing my plain old potatoes for my shepherd’s pie.

I love that people are out there doing what he is doing and that I can sample this food, if I could afford it, but Blumantal’s recipes were virtually impossible to replicate at home without his army of chefs, huge walk-in cold rooms, liquid nitrogen tanks and what amounts to a chemistry lab in his kitchen.

I was afraid that the Noma cook book would prove the same, as chef Rene Redzepi trained at El Bulli, the home of this type of molecular gastronomic cooking. At Noma the chef was only 25 when he started the venture and insisted on using only the most local of ingredients. This is one thing when you live in the sunny south of Italy where vegetables literally drip from the trees in the summer months and even throughout the cooler times of the year there are earthy truffles, mushrooms, chestnuts and a great deal more.

However René Redzepi did not set up his restaurant in a sunny climate, he instead chose his native Denmark where it is dark and cold for a large part of the year. The location and the fact that Scandinavian food has largely been ignored for so long has made the venture all the more appealing and innovative.

He did not stop there, every morning he and his chefs forage in the local woods and on the seashore for weird and wonderful ingredients. So would I be able to pick up these ingredients on a cold December day in Ireland? Olive oil is out for example, olives do not grow in Denmark, or Ireland for that matter. But rape seed oil is Irish. I can use this or butter, perhaps.

There are two philosophies stated throughout René Redzepi’s book, the full title being Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. One is the idea of using locally sourced ingredients and the other is working extremely closely with the Scandinavian seasons. This makes the recipes in this book even more tricky if you live outside of Denmark.

You will not find tomatoes in this book, René has admitted defeat on the tomato front as Danish tomatoes just do not get enough sun, he does not cook with them. Lemon or orange juice is out, so too is sugar. This makes for interesting cooking and is one of the reasons why he has got so much attention as a chef.

Apparently there are three non-Nordic ingredients that are used in the restaurant. Can you guess what they are? Yes wine is one, there are Danish wines on the menu but also wines from other countries in Europe, coffee is the second and chocolate is the third, but it is used sparingly.

René seems to have brought some of the thought process from El Buli with him but he has paired his cooking down. He has developed a desire for simplicity in food and a need to present his unusual raw ingredients in their natural state. There seems to be two main sources for this. Firstly his father was Macedonian and the family travelled there each summer. Here the food came straight from nature, if they wanted milk they milked the cow, if they wanted bread they baked it.

On returning to Denmark each year both of his parents worked hard as a taxi driver and cleaner and the family did not have the money to buy the fancy frozen dinners that his friends were being served, they had simple yet wholesome meals of fried liver, beans and salads.

Simplicity does not necessarily translate to easy as I discovered. I lifted the giant tome onto my kitchen counter and started to flick through its pages, scanning my kitchen cupboards for the ingredients. I came across a beautiful image of a miniature snowman and thought why not, it would be nice to recreate him for dinner, he looks amiable enough and quite topical at the moment. Amiable he might look, but impossible he is. I scanned the list of ingredients and though the better of it.

Perhaps I am tackling this book all wrong, I will start at the beginning, so recipe number one here I come, “cucumber and verbena”. Ouch there are 23 ingredients, three of which I have never heard of. I keep going and marvel at every ingredient list that appears in front of me.

I call Alan our organic, and very local supplier for the cafe and see what he has in his fields. He tells me he has leeks, parsnips, onions, carrots, beetroot and potato. Not as bad as I thought after the heavy snows at the weekend. Ok this is a start. I have these to work with.

How about some nice beetroot recipes? I need woodruff, wood chips, veal bone marrow. Help! I start looking for recipes with leeks, I find one that seems very manageable except that it requires me to use a bundle of hay. I happen to notice that the girl behind the counter in my local food shop was busy stuffing Christmas hampers with hay the last time I visited. I go back and ask for a bagful and she gladly obliges.

So I start to gather the rest of my ingredients and return home to burn my hay. I place it in a casserole dish that has a lid with a small hole in it, as I realise that I will need some air in the pot. I get the matches out and start to burn, it burns slowly at first then it catches alight. I am very lucky that the fire alarm does not go off as the whole house suddenly fills with its wonderful smelling smoke. Ironically it does not remind my of Scandinavia but of hot summer nights in warmer climates. Pretty quickly the hay reduces down to a dark gray, ashy dust. It says in the recipe to burn it for two to three hours but mine seems to have burnt off in less than a minute. I leave the saucepan full of burnt ash on a medium hob to see what happens. After half an hour I take it off deciding that maybe hamper-packing hay is different to Danish hay, it is just a little bit blacker than it was 30 minutes ago and the pot will be hard to scrub clean.

In the meantime I have put a half a bottle of dry white wine into another sauce pan and leave it over a low heat to reduce for a few hours. I reduce it to about one quarter of its original volume and leave it.

The next morning I take up my book again and tackle day two of the recipe. I chop my local onions, that I am using in place of shallots, and reduce my cream. I am in familiar territory here so all is good.

Unfortunately Irish crabs can not be cut with scissors as directed, so I have to smash the hard shells. Once this is done I delicately pick the pieces of shell from the soft white flesh. The crab wraps up nicely into a thin smooth sausage. I put this aside in the fridge and start my mussel sauce. Again this is easy enough, I have my mussels bubbling away with my thyme and the white wine. It is strange to drain the mussels and use only the juices left behind but I do as directed. This sauce is reduced before the cream and some butter is added. I have to say it pays off because I am left with a wonderfully delicate and delicious sauce that I would happily eat all by itself.

I also prepare my leeks as directed and chop them into the same size pieces as the crab which I have poached in the clingfilm. I now fry my bread crumbs, foam my sauce, make my emulsion, roll my leeks in ash, pan fry my crab and I am nearly done. It is all coming together. The final dish does not look anything like the sumptuous images that are so beautifully presented in the book but it is not too bad all the same and it tastes great. Would I do it again for a dinner party? I might make the sauce and use it in a more simple fashion and I did love the wonderful smell of burning hay, but no I would not recreate this exact recipe from scratch again.

After I have eaten my hard earned dinner I curl up by the fire and spend the next hour or two reading the fascinating descriptions in the Noma cookbook, while wishing I could book the next flight to Copenhagen and get René Redzepi and his team to recreate these deceptively simple and intriguing dishes for me.

The Noma book is a stunningly beautiful addition to any cook book collection, but it is best suited to being used as a source of inspiration and not taken too literally. I have a feeling it will grace many a sturdy coffee table rather than becoming a sauce splattered favourite in the kitchen.

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