Braised celery with bone marrow
150ml hot chicken (or vegetable) stock
A small handful of dried porcini mushrooms
A thick slice of butter
2 celery hearts, trimmed and the outside stalks peeled
A splash of red-wine vinegar
1 small clove garlic, crushed
1 small shallot, finely chopped
Bone marrow (optional)
A little chopped parsley
A pinch of salt
Pre-heat the oven to 180˚C/gas mark 4. Pour the stock over the dried porcini and leave to soak for 15 minutes. Melt the butter in a heavy-based, ovenproof dish. Gently stew the celery in the butter, colouring it lightly and then add the vinegar. Allow to bubble and reduce to almost nothing before adding the stock and swollen porcini. Bring to the boil and add the garlic, shallots and vermouth.
Cover with foil and place in the oven for about an hour, turning the celery over halfway through. Check from time to time that there is enough liquid, turning down the temperature and adding a little more stock/water if the celery begins to look too dry.
When the celery is almost ready, ease the marrow from the bones and pop into a small pan. Cover with water, add a pinch of salt and bring up to a quiet simmer. Immediately switch off the heat and leave the marrow to soften for a few minutes.
Once the celery is cooked, remove it to a heated serving dish using a slotted spoon or tongs, then strain the celery juices over it using a fine sieve. Lift the marrow, thickly slice it with a sharp knife and lay it over the celery. Sprinkle with parsley and serve forthwith.
A purée of celeriac both delighted and astonished me, in 1977, over lunch at The Connaught hotel restaurant in London. I’d decided that I, together with a keen young apprentice cook called Andy Hall, should dash down to the big city for a Sunday lunch and experience the finest haute cuisine that London had to offer. At the time, The Connaught was it.
Naturally, we both wore suits. Mine a frightful three-piece with a shade of plum, I recall; Andy’s probably a more sober pinstripe. But that’s what one did, then; only a few years previously, ladies arriving in trouser suits had, most discreetly, been turned away. Our table was flanked on one side by Lauren Bacall (no trousers) and on the other side of the room sat Alec Guinness, happily eating alone at a corner table, with a book (and trousers).
Andy and I felt both giddy and nervous. Remember, 37 years ago, these grand hotels and their restaurants simply didn’t recognise that two mad-keen country cooks (me, 23, Andy about 19) would rarely walk through their hallowed doors at all. And, what’s more, shell out £25 for lunch, for two-including wine! But we were treated so kindly, so properly by all and they understood that the treat, of course, was ours alone.
What truly astonished me, however, was how everyone else in the dining room clearly came here at least once a week, possibly more. The effusive welcome given by the maître d’hôtel, the ease of manners once seated at table (always, their table) and a curious brevity of ordering from the menu indicated, I later realised, that these people probably ate the same dishes every single time. I now ponder, with a mom-entary smirk, that we may well have been the only serious gourmets in the room that day.
The celeriac purée would accompany a large, roast saddle of hare (a serving for two), which was carved on a shining silver trolley directly beside us. The ruby-red meat was dispatched, with exquisite expertise, into long thin slices by a serious man dressed in a morning coat, who had, quite possibly, been learning how to perfect his skill since just post puberty.
An impossibly smooth, mahog-any-dark gravy was spooned over each serving, placed in front of us and the sublime ivory purée served at table from a silver dish. Nothing else at all disturbed the (almost) chiaroscuro of the plate. But then, as if out of nowhere, two simply perfect watercress salads sidled up, slipped onto the table by a brilliantined commis waiter, who smiled for two seconds and was gone. But so, too, has the old Con-naught, as I remember it then. A perfect, well-mannered place without bells and trumpets. We shall never see its like again.
750g celeriac, peeled and chopped into large chunks
A generous squeeze of lemon juice
A little salt
100g unsalted butter, at room temperature
Freshly and finely ground white pepper
Put the celeriac into a stainless-steel pan. Only just cover with water and add lemon juice and very little salt. Bring up to a simmer, cover and cook until very tender, possibly for as long as 40 minutes. Drain well in a colander suspended over a bowl.
Return the collected cooking water to the pan and reduce until little more than a few tablespoons remain (hence the little salt). Purée the celeriac with this reduced liquid, together with the butter and pepper, until smooth.
Very good served with hare, naturally, but also with venison. And, during the feathered-
game season, excellent alongside a simple roast mallard.
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