To cook well, it helps if you love and value food, as this is where it all starts. I cannot separate the cooking from what I am cooking. I feel bound to do well by the ingredients, and learning how to recognise good ones is crucial to becoming a good cook.
On a deeply personal level, I am charmed by what the earth produced to nourish and pleasure us. I am thrilled by the unconventional beauty of a cabbage leaf, the cross-section of a kiwi fruit closely observed, the heady smell and ticklish feel of a peach, the razor-like edges and sharp fizzing flavour of a verbena leaf, the sound of an eggshell being cracked and an egg spluttering in hot butter, the intensely modern shape and markings of a mackerel. I love it all.
Cooking is my beautiful game, my centre court, my George Best moment. Nothing else grounds me as cooking does – it makes me happy.
Wild garlic, chive or spring onion hamburger
A good, freshly mixed and cooked hamburger can be a treat or it can be dull, dry and disappointing. There are a few important rules to remember if you want a flavoursome, juicy burger. You need to choose meat with about 10 per cent fat on it. The fat will ensure a juicy texture. The meat should not be a prime cut but a lesser one such as neck, chuck or flank.
Raw minced meat deteriorates very quickly and the freshness of taste is soon lost. Trust your nose here, as freshly minced beef has no smell at all. If there is even a hint of a smell from the mince, it is not fresh enough, and when cooked it will taste as it smells. The freshness of taste of the meat is the secret of a really good burger. For that reason the meat must be cooked on the day it is minced.
I like to go to my butcher, point to the cut of beef I want and ask for it to be minced there and then. If you are buying mince off a supermarket shelf, have a good look at the packet, check to see that there is no discolouration around the edge of the meat and buy the packet with the longest remaining shelf life.
The other point of note in this recipe is that I use raw onion and garlic, so the burgers need to be cooked within an hour of being mixed. I find the raw onion, garlic and garlic leaves give a really zippy flavour to the meat. The wild garlic can be replaced with chopped chives or spring onion greens at another time of the year.
Personally, I like my burger cooked through to the centre; not overcooked and dry, but with no raw mince in the centre. What sauces and accompaniments you choose to serve is up to you. For some a golden bread bun with sesame or poppy seeds on top is essential. I like chips, a salad of leaves and mayonnaise or a tomato mayonnaise.
Perfectly fresh mince from the neck, chuck or flank is best. The slender-leaved wild garlic, also known as three-cornered garlic, with its bell-like flowers, can appear in a mild spring as early as February. If you are picking it yourself, it generally prefers a sunny spot.
The other, later-arriving variety, sometimes called ramsons, has a wider leaf, a pom-pom-shaped flower and likes a shaded place. Every part of the plant can be used: the flowers, leaves and the little bulb-type roots. Farmers’ markets and good shops will have wild garlic available right through the season.
1 small onion, about 50g
1 clove of garlic
450g freshly minced beef
2 tbs beaten egg
60g finely chopped wild garlic leaves or chives or spring onion greens
½ tsp thyme leaves
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
● Grate the onion and garlic on a Microplane or a very fine grater and put into a bowl with the meat. The onion and garlic will break down to a thick juice when they are grated. This is exactly what you want. Add the beaten egg, chopped garlic leaves, chives or greens and thyme leaves, and season with salt and pepper.
● Mix well. I always mix the ingredients with my hands, as I feel this keeps the mixture light and not too compacted. Fry a morsel in a pan and taste to check that the seasoning is correct. Form into two large or four small burgers.
● Heat a heavy-based grill or frying pan until quite hot. Dab a little olive oil on to the surface of the burgers and place in the pan. As the meat starts to colour, turn the heat down a little. Turn regularly during the cooking, as the egg in the recipe will cause the burgers to brown quite quickly. They will take about 15 minutes to cook through.
● If you want to assemble the burgers more than one hour in advance, you could chop the onion finely and sweat it in a little olive oil or butter to cook it through with no colour. Allow the onion to cool completely before mixing it with the raw minced beef.
Grilled chicken with summer marjoram and lemon, and roasted almond sauce
Try to find an organic, or at least a free-range, chicken. If you buy the whole chicken, you will have the carcass for making a stock or broth and you can reserve the wings for another recipe. Chicken breasts alone can be used here, but I like to grill the legs and thighs also, as I prefer their flavour.
The chosen herb, marjoram, is my absolute favourite; however, it can be replaced with thyme, rosemary or tarragon, all of which are great with chicken. The roasted almond sauce is also delicious served with grilled lamb.
1 chicken, jointed into 8-12 pieces, bones removed from thighs and drumsticks
2 tbs olive oil
2 tbs chopped marjoram
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Roasted almond sauce
100g unskinned almonds
Maldon sea salt
1 clove of garlic, peeled
2 tbs marjoram leaves
2-4 tbs olive oil
2-3 tbs water
2 tbs Parmesan, grated
Lemon juice, a few drops, as necessary
● Start by making the sauce. To peel the almonds, place them in a small saucepan, cover them with cold water and bring to a bare simmer. Strain immediately and rinse under a cold tap. Slip off the skins. Place the almonds on a baking tray and roast in a moderate oven at 180C/350F/gas 4 until golden brown. Remove and set aside to cool.
● Place a pinch of sea salt in a mortar and add the garlic and marjoram leaves. Pound to a paste, then add the almonds and pound again. Gradually they will start to break down and get creamy.
● Add a little olive oil as you go.
● When the ingredients have taken on a pesto-type consistency, taste, and fold in the Parmesan. The almonds will be a little bit gritty and this is perfect. Correct the seasoning and consistency, adding in a few drops of lemon juice and water if necessary. Cover and chill until needed.
● Place a cast-iron grill on the heat. While the pan is heating, place the chicken joints in a bowl and rub with enough olive oil to glaze them. Add half the marjoram and a squeeze of lemon juice and mix well.
● When the pan is just smoking, place the chicken joints, skin-side down, on the hot grill. Allow them to colour well, adjusting the heat under the pan as necessary. When the skin is crisp and golden, turn and cook on the other side.
● Season the crisp skin with salt and pepper at this point. As soon as a crisp surface is achieved on both sides, turn the heat down to complete the cooking without burning the meat. If you wish, you can transfer the pan to a moderate oven now to finish cooking.
● Serve the cooked chicken sprinkled with the rest of the chopped marjoram, with lemon wedges and a little extra olive oil if you think it needs it. Pass the roast almond sauce separately. A salad of leaves and a dish of rustic roast potatoes make excellent accompaniments, as do glazed carrots.
Raspberry jelly with lemon and mint cream
I love jelly, and this recipe came about as a result. Use firm, ripe berries – indeed, the recipe can be changed to include a mixture of berries such as loganberries, tayberries and a few currants.
The jellies will keep perfectly in the fridge for a couple of days, as long as they are covered. I like to set the jelly in individual portions, either in glasses or oiled ramekins which can then be turned out and served as quivering little jewel-like offerings. Of course you can set all the jelly in a large old-fashioned jelly mould, or use a glass bowl so that you can see the lovely berries suspended in the lightly set jelly, and serve it straight from the bowl.
Ripe, firm raspberries are necessary here for superior flavour and texture. The framboise or raspberry liqueur is optional. (Crème de cassis would also do very nicely.)
I suggest powdered gelatin, but it can be replaced with the corresponding amount of leaf gelatin.
Sunflower or grapeseed oil, for brushing
2½ tsp gelatin
3 tbs water
225ml cold water
4 sprigs of spearmint
1 dsp framboise raspberry liqueur
1 tbs lemon juice
15 spearmint leaves
1 tbs lemon juice
150ml regular or double cream
● Prepare 8-10 individual jelly moulds, ramekins, espresso cups or small glasses. Brush them with a little non-scented oil such as sunflower or grapeseed oil, and place them upside down on a sheet of kitchen paper to allow any excess oil to run off. Alternatively, use your favourite serving bowl. If you are not planning to serve the jellies turned out you do not have to oil the receptacle.
● To make the syrup, put the water, sugar and mint sprigs into a pan and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for 2 minutes, then take off the heat and allow to cool completely. Add the framboise, if using, and the lemon juice.
● Measure the gelatin into a Pyrex jug or ceramic bowl. Add the water and allow to sponge. Place the sponged gelatin in a saucepan of gently simmering water to dissolve. The sponge will dissolve unaided into a clear liquid. There should be no undissolved grains of gelatin in the liquid.
● Strain the cooled mint syrup through a sieve, pressing every drop of liquid through. Add 2 tablespoons of the syrup to the gelatin and stir, then add another 2 tablespoons and stir again. Pour this into the remaining syrup and mix well.
● Put the raspberries into a bowl. Add the gelatin mixture and mix with a gentle touch so as not to crush the berries. Put the mixture into the prepared moulds and place in the fridge to set. This will take about 3 hours, sometimes less.
● Meanwhile, make the mint cream. Place the mint leaves in a bowl and crush them with the back of a spoon to coarsely tear them. Add the lemon juice, then stir in the cream, which will thicken slightly. If it thickens too much, add a little water to thin it out. The consistency should be that of pouring cream.
● To serve, turn out the jellies and drizzle with a little mint cream. Decorate with more mint leaves, and a few raspberries if you have them left over.
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Extracted from Master it by Rory O‘Connell, published by Fourth Estate on May 23, RRP£25.
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