When grown for flavour and harvested at their best, common brassicas and root vegetables reward careful attention. At the Michelin-starred Morston Hall in Norfolk, chef Richard Bainbridge regularly makes them the focus of dishes on his nine-course set menu. Michael Raffael reports
He likes to offer two vegetable-focused dishes (as opposed to vegetarian) at every meal. To do this he has access to raw materials picked and delivered within hours. If he serves a turnip, he works with the whole vegetable including the leaves. The same approach works for other common vegetables such as cabbages or carrots. If they are grown for their flavour and harvested in prime condition, they deserve the chef's total commitment. It's not enough to blanch and refresh them as part of basic preparation and then rejig them during service.
Planning Dinner at Morston Hall sets its own challenges. The nine-course set menu where 50 to 60 guests sit down together might seem similar to banqueting. The dining experience, though, is closer to that of a conventional Á la carte meal.
In the kitchen, chefs expect to serve each course in 10 minutes. They never plate up more than eight dishes together. It's a "country house hotel" experience, so there's no emphasis on labour-intensive assembling or plating tricks.
Because the menu changes daily, all vegetables are prepared from scratch. They arrive direct from the grower in the morning. A purée may be prepared on the day, ahead of service, but critical cooking is at the last minute. For instance, the rainbow carrots (see recipe, right) are fresh-roasted and dished up. The Hispi cabbage (recipe, page 42) portions are part-cooked under vacuum but caramelised in a pan as one might do a steak. There's no blanching, refreshing and reheating in microwaves or butter-emulsions.
Costing The £65 (excluding service) menu changes every day. It would be impossible to cost it ahead because Bainbridge doesn't know until the last moment what his suppliers can bring him. Over the year he works to a GP of between 68% and 69%.
Tips The recipes here are stand-alone courses, but Morston Hall might serve the carrots with rabbit as a main and the turnips with suckling lamb.
This works for parsley, chervil, fennel or dill: roughly chop and blanch 500g herbs. Drain. Put them in a pan with 250ml of selected oil - pomace, rapeseed, virgin olive oil or a neutral oil. Heat to 60Â°C and hold at this temperature for five minutes. Blend in a Thermomix or similar food processor. Strain or pass through a chinois and store out of the light in a squeezy bottle.
â- Elveden Estate Farms Bainbridge buys organic vegetables from Elveden in Norfolk.
â- Grow Your Own Books For specialist items he works with cookery writer Trish le Gal (pictured on the cover), who grows carrot flowers and herbs for him on her smallholding at Wells-next-the-Sea, also in Norfolk.
ROASTED RAINBOW CARROTS AND TUNWORTH CHEESE
Rainbow carrots come in different shades from cream to red. In this dish, their colour is less important than their sugary flavour. Grown organically, they don't need scraping or peeling. These aren't micro-veg but about 12cm long. Size and thickness will vary. They can be roasted as a batch, either in a pan or on the range. The carrot purée can be prepared in advance.
Carrot purée (Batch size for about 50 portions)
1kg rainbow carrots
Roasted rainbow carrots (Two portions here for photography, but can be made as a batch)
4 rainbow carrots
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
Assembly and service (Serves one)
2 roasted carrots
15g approx carrot purée, reheated
1tsp lemon purée
1tsp dill oil
15g Tunworth cheese (or ripe Brie â¨or Camembert)
Fresh-picked carrot leaves
For the carrot purée, cut up the carrots without scrubbing or peeling them. Seal them loosely with the butter in a vacuum bag. Steam for 20 minutes in a combi-oven ï¿½at 120Â°C. Blend to a purée.
For the roasted rainbow carrots, melt the butter in a small pan. Add the carrots and rosemary. Colour gently on top of the range. When they start to shrivel, cover and let them cook slowly without burning to a dark caramel colour - about 15 minutes - shaking the pan often.
To serve, pat the roasted carrots dry on absorbent paper and put in the centre of the plate. Arrange a quenelle of carrot purée next to them. Pipe the lemon purée to one side. Drip the oil around the carrot. Add the cheese and finish with carrot leaves and flowers.
Lemon purée Prick and blanch untreated lemons three times. Then blanch them again three times in a basic 50-50 sugar-to-water stock syrup. Blend to a purée with a little stock syrup to taste.
HISPI CABBAGE, SMOKED HAM HOCK AND BUTTERMILK
Hispi are smallish pointed cabbages. Most chefs will shred them, but Richard Bainbridge quarters them with the base of the stalk intact, steams them and then sautés one surface till it's browned. (For the photography, he cooks one cabbage.)
Ingredients (Makes four)
Steamed Hispi cabbage (four quarters)
1 small Hispi cabbage
4 sprigs thyme
Assembly and service (Serves two)
40ml parsley oil
100g smoked ham hock, heated and flaked
Split and quarter the cabbage lengthways (with a large cabbage, divide it into six). Sprinkle a little salt between the leaves. Put two pieces each into two vacuum bags. Add a knob of butter and thyme. Seal on full vacuum. Steam 20 minutes in a combi-oven set at 120Â°C.
To serve, open the vacuum pack containing the cabbage. Pour a little of the liquid into the buttermilk and add parsley oil to it.
Melt the butter in a small pan and lay the cabbage portions in it. Leave to fry gently until the surface has browned, about five minutes.
To serve, pour the warmed buttermilk and oil on to rounded plates. Add the cabbage, leaving the exposed surface visible. Lay the ham hock on them and finish with chive flowers.
Smoked ham hocks Morston Hall has its own outdoor smokehouse for cold smoking. It dry-cures ham knuckles and smokes them for six hours. They are then desalted and poached in wine and vinegar with a classic mirepoix.
BRAISED TURNIP, SALT-BAKED PUREE AND TURNIP GREENS
Use fresh-harvested baby turnips, no larger than golf balls, with leaves attached. These are a guide to freshness. For the photography, Bainbridge has prepared the dish as though for Á la carte or tasting menu service. At Morston Hall he would make this as a batch. (The ingredients need careful adjusting when scaling up.)
Salt-baked purée Note: for the full batch of 20 turnips, multiply the dough quantity by 10 (1,200g flour, 800g salt) and seal the turnips in a thicker pastry. You may have to bake a little longer, too.
(Makes about 100g)
120g strong white flour
80g sea salt
Water to bind
3 baby turnips without leaves
Braised (poached) turnips Note: for the full batch, say 50, â¨use only four bay leaves and one lemon
(Allow one turnip per portion)
3-4 golf ball-sized turnips
1 small bay leaf
3 sprigs of thyme
A few white peppercorns
3-4 slices of lemon
Water to cover
Assembly and service (Serves one)
1 braised turnip
1tsp chopped chives
15-20g turnip purée, reheated
1tsp strained yogurt
5 green apple matchsticks
2-3 turnip tops
1tsp chervil oil
25ml warmed whey
Method For the salt-baked purée, make a dough you can roll out with flour, salt and water. Roll out to about 3mm thick. Wrap the turnips in this (think pasties). Bake 35 minutes at 190Â°C. Cool. Remove the pastry shell. Peel the turnips with a vegetable knife. Blend and sieve them.
For the braised turnips, put turnips, bay leaf, thyme, pepper and lemon in a pan just large enough to contain them. Add 20g butter. Cover with water. Put a cartouche on top. Boil and simmer till just tender (about 15 minutes). Cool in the liquid.
To serve, melt the butter in a small pan. Add the turnip and chives. Heat through gently so that the outside glazes. Wilt the leaves in rapeseed oil.
Put a quenelle of purée in a soup bowl. Pipe the strained yogurt next to it. Next to this put the turnip. Top with the leaves and apple. Finish with chervil oil and whey.
Yogurt and whey
Strain 5kg of fresh organic yogurt through muslin overnight to obtain about 4kg of Greek-style yogurt and a litre of whey.