When I run a cooking class, I’ll often ask what is more important, flavour or texture – and almost everyone responds “flavour”. In my opinion, however, texture wins out. As an example, take potato chips. You can eat crispy potato chips of any flavour and appreciate them more or less equally (with allowances for preference). Take any flavour of potato chip, however, and mix them with just a teaspoon of water to remove their crunch and they’ll be inedible. A teaspoon of water hasn’t changed the flavour of them that much, but changing the texture has made all the difference.
Once we’ve chosen our ingredients, everything else we do with them in the kitchen – from cutting them to choosing our method of cooking and deciding how long to cook them – is really a process of controlling texture. The success of simple, classic French cooking is all about texture – a juicy steak instead of dry, a tender stew instead of rubbery, or a creamy pudding instead of grainy. Focus on the texture in your cooking and you’ll get great results every time.
CHICKEN VELOUTÉ STEW
This “composed” stew isn’t just a jumble of ingredients cooked together. Instead, each vegetable is added separately so they lightly poach in the rich, thick sauce and retain their texture.
• 4 chicken wings
• 100g butter
• 4 chicken thighs
• 2 cups button mushrooms, halved
• 4 thick rashers bacon, cut into lardons
• 1 brown onion, sliced
• ½ cup flour
• ½ cup white wine
• 1½ litres chicken stock
• 2 bay leaves
• 4 sprigs thyme
• ½ small savoy cabbage, divided into two wedges
• 3 carrots, peeled and cut into thirds
• ½ head broccoli, separated into florets
• a handful of green beans, tailed
• 100ml pouring cream
Joint the chicken wings and put the wing tips to one side – they’re not needed in this dish. Heat a little of the butter in a large, wide, heavy-lidded saucepan. Fry the chicken thighs and wings until well browned on the outside but not yet cooked through. Remove from the pan and set aside.
In the same pan, fry the mushrooms until well browned, remove from the pan and set aside. Add the bacon and fry until browned, then add the onion and remaining butter and cook until the onions soften. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes until a roux forms. Add the wine and chicken stock a little at a time, stirring constantly to remove any lumps from the roux until you have a thick sauce. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Add the bay leaves, thyme, cabbage wedges and carrots, reduce the heat to a simmer, then cover and cook for 20 minutes.
Slice the chicken thighs and add with the wings to one section of the pot. Add the mushrooms to another section. Simmer for 5 minutes, then add the broccoli and beans in their own sections. Simmer for a further minute, then taste and adjust for seasoning again (it will likely need a little more salt). Pour the cream over the stew and serve.
CARAMEL FRENCH TOAST WITH MARMALADE
Caramel French toast with marmalade. Photo: William Meppem
The French name for French toast is pain perdu – “lost bread”. That’s because slightly stale bread is perfect for this dish, soaking up the custard for a creamy, silken centre.
• ¼ cup sugar
• 1 tbsp Grand Marnier (optional)
• ¾ cup milk
• 3 whole eggs
• 2 egg yolks
• pinch of salt
• 4 slices stale white bread, 2½cm thick
• 2 tbsp butter
• icing sugar, to serve
• bitter marmalade, to serve
• vanilla ice-cream, to serve
Heat the sugar in a small saucepan, swirling occasionally, until it forms a dark caramel. Add ¼ cup of water and whisk over medium heat until the caramel is dissolved. Add the Grand Marnier, if using, and allow to cool slightly. Pour in the milk and then whisk in the eggs, egg yolks and salt until smooth. Strain the caramel mixture into a tray and add the bread. Lightly press down the bread slices a few times and allow them to spring back to suck up the custard like a sponge. Soak for 30 minutes, turning and lightly pressing again halfway through.
Heat a large frying pan over medium heat and add half the butter. Remove the bread from the tray and let any excess drip away. Fry two slices of toast on medium heat for about 2½ minutes per side. Repeat for the remaining slices.
Dust the slices with icing sugar and serve with a dollop of marmalade and a small scoop of vanilla ice-cream.
Adam’s tip The secret to good French toast is treating the bread like a sponge for the rich custard. The key is not cutting the bread too thick or thin – about 2½cm is perfect. Give it a slight squeeze as you put it into the custard, and let it soak.