Another journey through past cookbooks being sold for next to nothing unearthed a gem with this book from 1990 by Raymond Blanc, chef and owner of Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, current holder of two michelin stars. In fact the restaurant had the rare honour of being awarded two stars before even opening its doors at the grand manor house after the move from Blanc’s more modest first premises below the Oxfam headquarters in the city centre of Oxford.
The book has a ‘hold your hand’ type of feel to it, such effort has gone into the small details that many of today’s publications often overlook. Blanc has said that he used to go home and write this book every day after service until around 3-4am. Talk about dedication. The recipes are divided into seasons to help with purchasing and planning of meals and rated 1-3 chef’s hats in terms of difficulty.
Lately I was watching some retro cookery shows on YouTube and came across the ‘Take 12 Cooks’ series. This features Raymond Blanc in the early stages of his career at Le Manoir in a period when Marco Pierre White was working under him in the kitchen. According to Marco’s autobiography ‘The Devil in the Kitchen’ it was mainly down to him that the dish I chose to cook today exists. A Chartreuse of Asparagus with Leeks.
The video below shows Raymond covered in sweat alternating between touring the dining room and running the pass and somewhere in between he shows how to construct this amazing dish. Layers of leek intertwined along the inside of a ramekin filled with a mousse of asparagus spears and turned out to be served with a light sauce and yet more leeks and asparagus, yum.
I began with the tricky bit, lining the buttered ramekins. Slicing a leek after separating the leaves in the most intricate and accurate ways possible took a fair while. The leaves are then briefly blanched in hot water and dunked into ice cold water to preserve the colour and halt the cooking process. Once the leaves are dried off with a tea towel you are ready to begin the assembly.
I tried as best I could to alternate the leaves green-white-green-white to give the appearance that resembled Raymond’s and overlapped them slightly to thoroughly encase the mousse. Thankfully this wasn’t too difficult in the end just a little time consuming, by the end I had two lined ramekins.
Onto the mousse, in the absence of chervil I went for a combo of tarragon and parsley. In with the herbs go chicken breast, eggs, milk, cream and the asparagus tips. I also added leek tops blanched with the asparagus for a bit of extra colour. A quick blast in the blender and a smooth mousse emerged with a green tint to it, kind of like a herb mayonnaise. I then passed the mousse into a sieve for optimum smoothness and poured it into the ramekins.
Covering the top over with the excess leek overhang was going great until a slight slip allowed a trickle of mousse to escape, damn! Luckily this didn’t really affect the final result. The mousses then go into a bain-marie and get a covering of loosely buttered foil which has been punctured to allow the heat to escape and avoid a build up.
In the meantime the really good thing about this recipe is the lack of waste. I used the asparagus stalks, leek tops and herbs to make a vegetable stock for the sauce which took less than 10 minutes to make, strain and then set aside. The stock is then turned into a light sauce by bringing to the boil and adding a touch of butter, cream, herbs and lemon juice, it was full-on flavour at this point.
After sautéing a handful of wild pied de mouton mushrooms and some baby asparagus spears all that was left to do was to put the dish together. Turning out the chartreuse the contrast of colour was a little bit of a let down but the mousses had set perfectly and the overall result did look good. The dressing then is simple the sauce, asparagus and mushrooms. I also finished the dish with a few drops of truffle oil.
The flavours on this plate were amazing. Such fresh flavour coming from the mousse, lightness of the sauce and all the elements go together perfectly. It’s a dish that does require effort but so worth it when you dig into the final result. Maybe using the darker leek tops would have produced more of a contrast of colour but take nothing away from the flavours on the plate, fantastic and a joy to eat.