By Graham Duncan
Photos by Graham Duncan
Does anyone remember Nouvelle Cuisine? Originating with a number of chefs in 1970’s France, it influenced restaurants throughout the industry. Nouvelle Cuisine emphasized fresh, quality ingredients, ornate presentation and lighter fare. It made for clean, distinct flavours, al dente vegetables, and occasionally finishing your dinner in need of a snack.
I asked Peter about Nouvelle Cuisine and he was, not surprisingly, well-versed. He brought in a massive stack of cookbooks and we decided I should get my Nouvelle on.
Nouvelle Quest Guided By Inspiring But Sometimes Vague Cookbook
From Peter’s library, Michel Bras’ Essential Cuisine seemed the most Nouvelle-y and ambitious. While published in 2002, it embodies many of the movement’s themes and exacting imperatives, as to be expected of a Three-Star chef. I decided to attempt two recipes from Essential Cuisine which combined the weird and the familiar.
Rump Roast Pan-fried with Crispy Fatback, Buckwheat Jus and Swiss Chard
The Rump Roast
The recipe describes a rump roast cut up into servings. We call these top sirloin steaks. If I’m going to cook a fancy steak dinner, admirable as a top sirloin may be, I’d opt for a more deluxe cut, like an Artisan Farms AAA strip loin (cut into two servings). And the pan-frying part? The grill was already going to be hot (see onions), so I cooked the steaks there as well. Hard to go wrong.
The Crispy Fatback
Steak — no problem. Crispy fatback, as portrayed in the cookbook photo, looked like playing cards, “standing on end so they catch the light”? I followed Bras’ scant instructions and ended up with delicious, stumpy pieces of crackling that were no more going to “catch the light” than they were going to catch a pop fly in centre field. I ate most of them while preparing the rest of dinner.
The Buckwheat Jus
This is a sauce to accompany the steak. In the recipe photo it appears as a luminous drizzle. After simmering the buckwheat, you sieve it, presumably to eliminate husks, resulting in a smooth base. Have you ever sieved porridge? This is why kitchens have apprentices. Combined with stock, onions and garlic, it tasted like health food stores smell. Even after trying to enliven it with concentrated stock it was about as luminous as burlap. Jus can’t always get what you want.
The Swiss Chard
Other than: separating the leaves from the stems; removing the fibres; splitting the stems; cooking them separately; chilling in ice water; and sautéing, again separately, with butter and shallots, this was a breeze. And delicious! But that may have had something to do with the rather un-Nouvelle-like half pound of butter.
The Swiss chard was delectable. The fatback can probably be mastered but the buckwheat jus and I will never see eye to eye. Oh, and the steak was excellent. Whadya expect? It’s from Sanagan’s.
Roasted Sweet Onions with “Licorice Powder” and Vinaigrette au Jus
You’re supposed to roast the onions nestled in a pan of rock salt but that’s a lot of rock salt for just one dish. So, I slow roasted our beautiful Cookstown organic sweet onions on the gas grill; a successful adaptation.
Dry black olives overnight in the oven. Chop into a powder. Combine with demerara sugar and almond powder and you’ve got a wonderful licorice-y garnish. Dusted over top of the roasted onions, this is the sort of infatuating culinary alchemy I was hoping for.
Vinaigrette Au Jus
Red wine vinegar, grape seed oil (exceedingly clean and mild) and “short pigeon jus”. What is short pigeon jus, you may ask? A short jus is a concentrated, almost demi-glace-like reduction of regular stock a.k.a. long jus. Now, the long and short of it is, that even at Sanagan’s we don’t have that much pigeon carcass laying around for stock. So, at Peter’s suggestion, I made 2 litres of long duck jus, which was enriched and reduced into less than a cup of short duck jus, two tablespoons of which were added to the vinaigrette. Crazy! But the result was worth it. You know when you’re at some great restaurant and you say, happily, “We’d never have this at home”? That’s where we were with the vinaigrette au jus.
The disappointments of the fatback and the buckwheat jus were overcome by this dish. It’s definitely the most original thing I’ve cooked and one of the most delicious.
The Nouvelle Takeaway
You stand up, you walk, you fall, you stand up and walk again. My Nouvelle adventure taught me a few new tricks and re-awakened my appetite for experimenting in the kitchen. Now, if you see me out in Bellevue Park with a net, you’ll know that I’m working on my short pigeon jus.