In the second of our seasonal features looking at failsafe menu items that deliver a low food cost and a high profit, Michael Raffael looks forward to spring for inspiration
Spot "Caesar salad" posted on a menu outside a restaurant and the heart can sink. Instinctively, you may suspect that it's a wheeze to offload Iceberg lettuce at a premium with minimal skill. Passed down through the food chain it's often badly made, and yet it remains popular at every level. Get it right, make it better than old man Cardini who invented it did, and it's still special.
Low cunning helps when backing a hunch on what will sell. Pesto is a magic word. Beer batter, you know, gives an extra-crisp light finish. Burrata has been filling consumer magazines' foodie pages for the past couple of years. A proper char siu glaze on roasted pork offers more than most sticky BBQ sauces that anoint spareribs. Rosemary, bay leaf and olive oil as a grill-flavouring is a no brainer for anyone familiar with Tuscan or Piedmontese cooking.
Garnishes, even the edible ones, rarely justify the time, effort and money lavished on them. It's better to put the cash into the quality of the prime ingredients. They are what you're selling. Back your judgement and buy the best you can afford.
Soupe au pistou
Depending on the style of restaurant, you could also call this "minestrone con pesto". For authenticity make the soup with olive oil, assorted beans, in season vegetables, tomatoes that have taste and basil stalks. Add the pistou to each serving so its aroma rises from the bowl.
Cost from 85p
Cardini's original 1920s recipe didn't include anchovy: just Romaine (Cos) lettuce with oil, Parmesan, garlic and coddled egg. Later he added Worcester sauce and lemon juice to the dressing and croutons. The challenge to chefs is how well, working within the framework of these ingredients, they can interpret it.
Cost from 70p, increasing with the choice of oil, Parmesan, salad greens
On Rick Stein's original 1975 Seafood Restaurant menu and still a safe bet. Forget the cream that's sometimes added. It dilutes the taste and makes the mussels less of a finger food. A common failing is not dicing the onions/shallots fine enough and not sweating them in butter until they're sweet and transparent before adding the Muscadet and parsley.
Cost £1.15 upwards, according to portioning
Grilled goats' cheese
How this presents depends on the choice of goats' cheese. It's an opportunity to flag up a local supplier. Grill the cheese one side only on fresh toast, accompanied with salads - walnuts or toasted hazelnut work well.
Cost 90p-£1.60, based on 60g cheese priced between £8 and £18 per kg
Malfade corte in crema di burrata
Two of the hottest Italian ingredients - wrinkled pasta ribbons; the mozzarella balloon filled with mascarpone-like cheese - come together. Mix in courgettes threads for colour, saffron and maybe ginger for taste spikes.
Cost £1.20 per portion, or £3.50 as a main course. Laverstoke Park Farm makes limited quantities of burrata in the UK at about £3.49 for 150g
Exeter pub Jack-in-the-Green uses the thin tail-ends of round fish such as bass or salmon to bulk out its fish pie. It cuts back on potential waste from à la carte dishes while adding value.
Classic Italian fry-up - beer batter is best - Balance the calamari and prawns with aubergines and courgettes. Keep the sauce simple, for example, 50-50 mayonnaise and yogurt with mustard and chives. Tack on an interesting accompaniment - polenta chips?
Cost £1.90-£3.50, depending on choice of shellfish - prawns and so on
Beef daube A la provençale
Large pieces (50g) of beef, braised in the oven with red wine, garlic, herbs and a little orange zest. It packs more punch than beef bourguignon and the larger pieces of meat create more impact on the plate than bite-sized cubes.
Cost From £2.50, based on braising beef at £7 per kg
Better than spare ribs. The eight-hour marinade (Yan-Kit So's Classic Food of China): 5ml salt, 120ml sugar, 30ml hoisin, 30ml ground yellow bean, 15ml red bean curd, 1tsp garlic, 60ml light soy, 15ml medium sherry.
Cost £2.25, based on Gloucester Old Spot shoulder at £9 per kg
Spatchcock the poussin - split it down the back, flatten it and hold in place with bamboo skewers - and marinate in olive oil, rosemary and bayleaf. Let flavours impregnate the meat before grilling.
Cost £3.75, based on Gressingham slow-grown poussins
Passion fruit souffle
Soufflés hold few fears for modern kitchens. Passion fruit has an irresistible aroma. You can prepare this with the traditional crème pâtissière base or as a flourless version. Think of variations such as passion fruit and blood orange. Wrinkled shells are signs of riper fruit.
Cost about 75p
Timeless, rich chocolate dessert midway between a mousse and a truffle texture: couverture, butter, sabayon and whisked egg white. Prepared in moulds it can be turned out and decorated ad lib.
Cost from £1.10, depending on couverture quality
Forced rhubarb is more than a passing food fad, but the cheaper maincrop stalks are as interesting. The English fool, at least 400 years old, still pleases, whether it's left natural or spiked with ginger or pastis.
Cost about 70p
Bread and Butter pudding
Anton Mosimann, one of the early media savvy chefs, cooked his Dorchester hotel version on TV and received 60,000 requests for the recipe. Since then bread and butter pudding has been a stand-by, tweaked by individual chefs. Mrs Beeton's hot version is worth looking up, too, for anyone who owns a dog-eared copy of the book.
Prune and Armagnac ice-cream
This recipe evolved as a way of using the extra plump pruneaux d'Agen preserved in Armagnac. Any good stewed prunes with a measure of Armagnac added before churning the ice-cream hits the spot.
Cost 50p, based on Armagnac at £3.20 per 100ml
"I CAN'T TAKE IT OFF THE MENU"
ROULADE OF PORK BELLY, BRAISED RED CABBAGE, APPLE COMPOTE, £17.95 I know lots of people have belly pork on their menus at the moment, but ours is different in as much as it is boned and rolled and then poached prior to cooking in the oven. It really is good and has become something of a signature dish.
Mark Dodson, the Mason's Arms, Knowstone, Devon - Michelin Pub of the Year 201
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