This month at the Unseen Restaurant we decided to resurrect some old dinner party classics and I deliberately opted for the most clichéd dishes I could think of: prawn cocktail, beef stroganoff and black forest gateaux.
The guests arrived in full retro spirit – there was no dress code for the evening but I noticed significantly more velvet than is normal and one particularly wonderful Pippa Dee kaftan topped with a voluminous fake fur coat. There was also one truly authentic bottle of Mateus Rose wine and an hilarious moment when we tasted it and realised how incredibly unsophisticated we really were back then. This was reinforced even further by the sound track for the evening – a Top of the Pops 1970s compilation album – classy…
I was a little nervous about the food. Everybody knew the menu in advance and had chosen, a little tongue in cheek, to attend anyway but I felt it was incumbent on me to bring something fresh to these dishes – after all, they really were considered classics once upon a time. It turned out that I needn’t have worried too much. The key to making the food enjoyable was the same as always, source great ingredients, balance the flavours and treat the food with respect:
The prawn cocktail flavours were allowed to speak for themselves; great quality king prawns (rather than the shrimps I remember), soft, ripe avocado, a marie-rose sauce made with homemade mayonnaise and a few carefully selected salad leaves – not an iceberg lettuce in sight. The food was placed on a plate rather than piled in a martini glass and I hope it didn’t look out of place in 2012. One minor miracle occurred too – apparently (and I’ll take John’s word for it) the Mateus tasted pretty good with the prawn cocktail – maybe we did know a thing or two after all…
In my memory stroganoff consisted of a vaguely curdled sauce with some mushrooms and strips of chewy, grey, overcooked beef – all qualities I wanted to avoid. I decided not to cook the beef in the sauce at all. I gently softened chopped shallots in some butter and sprinkled them liberally with paprika then added some lightly browned slices of mushroom. I chose really flavoursome portabella and shitake as well as some tiny button mushrooms. As I wasn’t cooking the beef in the sauce I added some good quality,fresh beef stock for oomph and set the sauce aside. Just before serving I stirred through the sour cream and some chopped parsley. I had splashed out on some really good fillet steaks and these were flash fried, rested and served rare, in slices on top of the sauce. I served this, partially deconstructed, strog with the traditional Russian accompaniments of sautéed potatoes and pickled cucumber – lighter and more enjoyable than the waterlogged rice I remember.
Blackforest gateau has never really gone away but there is probably a whole generation who have only ever tried it from the supermarket freezer. I decided that individual gateaux would look more elegant and refined but in reality they were a little more robust than I planned – nobody seemed to object though and the plates were all scraped clean.
If you want to find a more modern way to present old classics try doing an Image search for your chosen dish adding the words “fine dining” to the search criteria. This is quite entertaining as some people have an interesting idea of what constitutes fine dining but you will also get some inspirational ideas about presentation. It may be a good idea not to get too ambitious, the image I had in my head for the gateaux didn’t quite match up to what I produced but I had fun making them anyway.
I spend hours flicking through magazines, reading cookery books and trawling food blogs in search of something new and inspiring but perhaps I am looking in the wrong direction – maybe the best food has already been invented and is just waiting for someone to resurrect it.