Veal and Poached Oyster Kohlrabi Parcels
With duck breast, smoked beetroot, and the ethics of veal farming
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Week 13, vol. 1
Setting the Table
I’ve started a little side project this week - Simon Rogan’s recipe for lamb bresaola. Because why make the arduous expedition to my local Italian delicatessen that’s 3 minutes around the corner, when I can spend 26 days curing my own charcuterie instead?1
I’ll be providing updates over the coming weeks - assuming it actually transforms into bresaola as opposed to a rotting hunk of meat. Let’s see. We’re currently on day 6 of 26.
I butchered the leg of hogget2 into its primal muscles - top rump, silverside, and topside (big thanks to this video from my regular butcher, Turner & George).
The meat was dry cured in the fridge for 4 days, using a curing mix of salt, pepper, bay leaves, garlic, and citrus rind.
It’s now going to cure in red wine for 10 days, with the meat being turned daily.
If you’ve been here before, skip ahead! For the benefit of first-time readers, write-ups are structured thusly: (1) Amuse-Bouche - the history and provenance of the dish; (2) Starters - an intro to the fancy Michelin version of the dish I’ll be cooking; (3) Main Courses - the actual cooking process; (4) Desserts - thoughts and conclusions on what worked, what didn’t, and most importantly, what tasted good; (5) Petit Fours - footnotes and references.
There’s a lot to touch on this week. The veal and oyster parcels are a nod to the traditional English dish of beef & oyster pie. Beef and oysters3 were a popular pairing in Victorian times, and in my digging, I unearthed a minced veal and oyster recipe from ‘Modern Cookery for Private Families’, published in 1845 by Eliza Acton, the English foodwriter and poet. A first edition can be yours for the princely sum of £1,750.
Unlike many historical cookbooks, ‘Modern Cookery’ was written for the masses, with a strong focus on food economy4 and using ingredients to their fullest - this is exemplified in Acton’s recipe titles, such as ‘Superlative Hare Soup’ and ‘A Less Expensive Hare Soup’.
From what I can glean, Acton enjoyed trolling her bosses (‘Modern Cookery’ contains a recipe for ‘Publisher’s Pudding’ featuring cognac, cream, and dried fruits, and ‘can scarcely be made too rich’. In contrast, Acton’s recipe for a basic bread and butter pudding is titled ‘The Poor Author’s Pudding’). She was a coffee snob, describing coffee served on trains as ‘a commercial disgrace’. Like myself, Acton lived in Kent in the southeast of England (we actually lived in the same town!) before moving to northwest London. We also have the shared life experience of having cooked a split pig’s head. With so much in common, I like to imagine that Eliza and I would have gotten along splendidly.
Moving on, I appreciated that Simon Rogan acknowledges the ethical issues that have historically plagued the veal industry at the very start of this week’s recipe. It’s a little light on detail, which drove me to do some additional research.
Veal is the meat from young calves, typically males from dairy herds that are discarded as they do not produce milk, and are uneconomical for beef farming due to their breed. The ethical issues surround veal date back to the 1980s, when veal was prized as a white, tender and delicate meat. However, these characteristics existed because the calves were fed anaemic, iron-deficient diets (to stop the meat from turning red), and confined to crates so they couldn’t move (to stop muscles from developing and becoming tough).
Fortunately, we have moved away from some of these practices - veal crates were banned in 1990 in the UK, and 2007 in the EU. As far as I know, white veal (which comes from very young calves slaughtered under 3 months old) is not produced in the UK, in part due to these welfare issues, although it remains common in Europe. Veal produced in the UK is termed rose / rosé / pink veal to distinguish it from white veal, and is usually aged between 6-12 months old.
Nonetheless, despite the progress in veal farming, demand for veal in the UK remains low. This results in many male calves being killed at birth, although this too, is changing thanks to the use of sexed semen that reduces the number of males born, and supermarket schemes that improve the economic viability of raising male calves. Personally, my view is that as long as veal remains an inevitable by-product of the dairy industry, and provided that the calves are raised by high-welfare producers (a number exist in the UK), eating veal remains preferable to slaughter at birth, and therefore, increasing demand for veal is a good thing.
We continue this week with Rogan by Simon Rogan. Rather than enclosing the veal and oysters in pastry, Rogan uses thinly sliced kohlrabi as a wrapper. Kohlrabi tastes a little like turnip, although it’s actually part of the brassica family, making it related to cabbage, broccoli, and mustard. Like many of Rogan’s other recipes we’ll be exploring over the coming weeks, there’s a Japanese influence here with the oysters being poached in dashi with added kombu.
Dashi is a family of Japanese stocks, commonly made by heating water with kombu (an edible kelp), and katsuobushi (preserved, fermented bonito or skipjack tuna). It’s rich in umami flavour and forms the base of many broths and soups, including miso soup.
The duck dish is more of a classic affair, pairing duck breast with a sweet, fruit-based sauce. Like all simple (relatively speaking…) dishes in haute cuisine, the focus here is execution and presentation - Rogan accentuates the deep reds and purples of the duck meat by plating it with a smoked beetroot sauce, confit baby beetroots, a black cherry gel, and garnishes of burgundy oxalis and red orache5.
Duck breast with cherries and smoked beetroot
I started by cutting away the duck breasts from the crown and the rest of the carcass, which was oven-roasted and used to make a stock with onions, carrots, celery and leeks. Pretty standard stuff, so far, so good.
Onto the baby beetroots. Rogan specifies using ‘Pablo F1’ beetroots, which I assume are named after some motorsports driver-turned-horticulturist. I could only find seeds for Pablo F1 (and beetroots take 7 weeks to grow) so I simply bought the smallest beetroots I could find at the grocer’s. The baby beetroots were cooked confit style in rapeseed oil on the lowest possible heat for a couple of hours. Very silent. Very peaceful.
For the beetroot juice, the recipe directed to smoke for 20 minutes using the home cook-friendly baking-tray-covered-with-foil method, which I ignored entirely. Because I have a smoker. The smoke-infused juice was mixed in with the duck stock and boiled down until it reduced to a rich, silky sauce.
That silkiness comes from all the gelatine extracted from the duck bones - which is why homemade stock is superior to instant products, especially for sauces.
The last component of the dish was the cherry gel, which uses agar agar6 as the gelling agent (it’s used a lot in this book). The gist of the recipe was to make a jelly, let it set, blend it until smooth, and sort of let it set again, with the desired end result being a dark cherry gel that you can use to pipe little decorative dots around the plate. It didn’t quite work out for me - my gel ended up being very gritty - so I just melted it into the beetroot sauce.
Very classic restaurant-style cook on the duck. Pan fry skin-side down on medium heat for 4 minutes, flip, and oven finish at 140°C / 284°F for 4 minutes. Duck breast is quite thick, so the convective heat from the oven hitting the sides helps to get a really even cook throughout.
Veal and poached oyster kohlrabi parcels
Belying the elaborate appearance, these were actually deceptively simple (at least, after I had worked out what I was doing) - kind of like making fancy wonton dumplings.
The filling was a mix of hand-chopped veal (cut to the very specific instruction of 7mm dice) and oysters that were poached very briefly for two minutes in kombu dashi (also cut to 7mm dice). I also made an ‘oyster emulsion’ that was effectively an egg white mayonnaise blended with fresh oysters.
To make the wrappers, I sliced out little discs of kohlrabi on my trusty Benriner mandoline. It took some trial and error, but I eventually figured out the discs needed to be absolutely paper-thin (see pictures above) in order to have the lightness and flexibility to adhere to itself. Spoon a little dollop of the emulsion, add the veal and oyster stuffing, then smush the little layers of kohlrabi together and pray they stick.
The base of the dish was apple juice blitzed together with spinach and lemon, dotted with little drops of apple marigold infused oil.
Apple marigold, which I *think* is tagetes erecta (aka Mexican marigold), has an intense apple aroma with citrusy undertones. It’s really very pleasant. Simon Rogan also used it at his former restaurant Fera to infuse vodka for cocktails, which I’m going to try with the leftover marigold I have.
At last, we’re starting to approach the level of culinary pain that I’ve been looking for. It took about 5 hours to put everything together, although a fair bit of that time was spent waiting around (simmering the duck stock, infusing the marigold oil, smoking the beetroot juice, and confiting the baby beetroots), and the cooking was all done at a leisurely pace, with a glass of wine in hand.
The tasting notes:
Firstly, as regular readers know, I’m my harshest critic when it comes to plating, but can I just say that the kohlrabi parcels looked *really* good? Like, this is the first time I’ve believed someone telling me my plating was “restaurant quality”.
The veal and oyster parcels themselves were so delicate and refreshing, and each bite was a delightful little morsel of springtime. The filling tasted of steak tartare, but milder because of the veal, which left room for the poached oysters and oyster emulsion to shine. Along with that, you had the light pepperiness of the crisp kohlrabi which brought a little hint of spice, topped off by the fragrant, citrusy apple marigold which really pushed the spring/summer vibes.
The duck breast was perfectly done - crisp skin, tender meat. The pan start / oven finish method is a classic for a reason , and it delivered. The sauce was a tiny bit too runny (I actually watered it down because it was too thick initially), and it bled around the duck breast, but whatever. It was sweet and fruity and smoky, loaded with complexity, and paired very nicely with the duck.
I’m not the biggest fan of beetroots - I think they taste boring, but hey, at least they looked pretty, and my dining companion liked them.
All in all, a very satisfying cook, and there’s plenty of material to work with for a recipe adaptation. I’ll be focusing on the duck breast with a simplified sauce, and perhaps we can also wrap some things in paper-thin kohlrabi slices. Until then, happy cooking!
Petit Fours (aka the footnotes)
To be fair, bresaola is typically made with beef (and occasionally venison and horse), so I was mostly just intrigued by the idea of making it with lamb.
Hogget is the term for lamb in its second spring or summer, i.e. between 1-2 years old. It’s more flavourful than young lamb, but also much more tender than mutton, so, the best of both worlds.
I ran out of space, but regarding oysters, I wanted to mention a delightful recipe in Larousse called ‘Oysters Robert Courtine’, named after the French food writer who wrote Le Monde’s gastronomy column from 1952-1993, which involves poaching, very specifically, 36(!) oysters in a cup of champagne, and combining the poaching liquid with butter to make a sauce. Actually, that sounds pretty good…
Regarding food economy, Acton writes in the preface to ‘Modern Cookery’ that “It may be safely averred that good cookery is the best and truest economy, turning to full account every wholesome article of food, and converting into palatable meals what the ignorant either render uneatable or throw away in disdain.”
“The details of domestic economy, in particular, are no longer sneered at as beneath the attention of the educated and accomplished; and the truly refined, intelligent, and high-minded women of England have ceased, in these days of comparative good sense, to consider their acquaintance with such details as inconsistent with their dignity or injurious to their attractions.”
I wasn’t able to get my hands on red orache, but I did buy a little burgundy oxalis plant, which I am trying very hard to save from the cruel fate that has befallen the vast majority of my other houseplants.
Agar agar is a natural vegetarian gelatine counterpart that’s used widely in Southeast Asian cuisine.