Monday, 6 December 2010

A partridge (but no pear tree)

I should have been visiting my friends Sébastien and Laurène in Toulouse at the weekend, but the weather here in the UK conspired against me and my flight was cancelled at the last minute. I was half-way to the airport when I learned about the cancellation, so found myself with some time to kill in central London.

This would have been the perfect excuse for another visit to St John, only they were fully booked that lunchtime. Fortunately there are plenty of good places to eat in London, and Corrigan's was happy to oblige with a table. Being in Mayfair, this is a bit more upmarket than St John, and the food a bit more dainty. It's more expensive, too, unless you go for the market menu, which is very tempting and excellent value for money at just £27 for three courses and a 250ml carafe (a.k.a. large glass) of wine.

The offerings on the à la carte menu were more tempting, though, and I opted for a partridge dish: roast breast and confit leg served with pumpkin ravioli. It was very good, but not quite perfect: one half of the breast was nicely cooked, but the other half a bit dry and tough, and the confit leg was extremely dry. Could I improve on this at home? I thought both breast and legs would benefit from sous vide cooking.

My local butcher (Barker Brothers in Great Shelford) had some nice looking partridges in the window, so I snapped one up for my experiment. Roasting a whole bird is always a challenge, as the time and temperature needed to cook the tougher leg meat will dry out the tender breasts - hence Corrigan's approach of cooking the two separately. Following his lead, I removed the legs and breasts from the carcass and prepared the legs for confit. (The breasts were simply brushed with olive oil, seasoned, vacuum packed, and put to one side in the fridge.)

To make the confit, start by salting the legs. About 1tbsp coarse salt and some crushed bay or thyme leaves will do, but I used some of the cure left over from my last batch of home-made bacon (a mix of salt, sugar, bay leaves, peppercorns and juniper). Toss the legs in the cure and set aside in the fridge for at least 12, but no more than 24, hours.

It would be a shame to waste that carcass, so it went into the pressure cooker with some roughly chopped onion, leeks, celery, carrots, parsley stalks, peppercorns and a litre of water. 30 minutes at high pressure and you have partridge stock. Strain, cool, and refrigerate until needed.

When they've had their time in the cure, remove the legs from the fridge, rinse off the cure, and dry thoroughly on kitchen towel. Vaccum pack with a good dollop of goose fat and transfer to a 68℃ water bath.

After 24 hours, reduce the temperature of the water bath to 62℃ (add some cold water to bring the temperature down), and add the breasts. They will be ready in an hour. To finish, drain and dry the legs and pan-fry to crisp the skin. Drain the breasts and pan-fry to colour, then rest for 10 minutes.

I served these with fondant potatoes (cooked in the partridge stock), creamed cabbage, and a white wine butter sauce (made with the partridge stock and cooking juices). It turned out to be quite easy to separate the cooking juices from the goose fat floating on top: simply snip a small corner off the sous vide pouch and let the juices run out, pinching it shut as soon as you get to the fat. The reserved juices can be added to the sauce.

Corrigan's win on presentation, but I think my partridge was better cooked: both the leg and breast were moist and tender. That was quite a lot of effort (2 1/2 days) for one meal, but I have some stock and a little meat left over, so dinner tomorrow will be a nice quick risotto.

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