Ask Peter: Dinner for 12
I made your panna cotta and was thrilled with the results. However, I struggled to get them out of the moulds. The first one I left in the hot water too long and it was slightly runny. A shorter time for the next one proved successful. Would it be easier to use spray and cook? Especially if one is having 12 for dinner — I don’t want to keep the guests waiting. Also for this dinner, I would like a chilled soup and have made this 15-minute summer soup recipe: Heat a knob of butter and a splash of olive oil in pan, add a bunch of chopped spring onions and 3 chopped courgettes and stir well. Cover and cook for 3 mins, add 200g fresh or frozen peas and 900ml hot vegetable stock, cover and simmer for 4 mins, then remove from heat and stir in 85g trimmed watercress and a large handful of mint until wilted. Puree in food processor, adding yoghurt and seasoning to taste. Serve hot or cold, with extra yoghurt. I feel it’s lacking in flavour. What can I do to improve the taste? Can I use the leaves and the stems of watercress and mint?
Let me start at the beginning. If you’re using a thin metal jelly mould (like my gran always did) then it is just a matter of dipping it in very hot water very briefly, inverting the panna cotta on to your other hand and wobbling it out with a brief, firm, sideways shake. Then you slip it from your fingers carefully on to your plate. Or, alternatively, invert the mould on to your plate and shake it out — although this can be tricky if you’re serving them on a large plate. If the mould you use is thicker, it’ll take longer for the warmth from the hot water to penetrate the mould, allowing the panna cotta to slip away from it.
I once had someone tell me they’d made a jelly recipe of mine and they had trouble unmoulding it — until I found out they had set them into thick pottery coffee mugs, which made no sense at all. They are way too thick for an easy unmoulding. Spray-and-cook may well work (I’ve not done it myself) but I’d suggest it won’t look pretty if making clear jellies — it could possibly look greasy. As to having 12 people over, well done to you. If you managed to make it work using the hot water trick, then I’d suggest you stick with that, unmoulding 12 will only take 4 minutes maximum, and you’ll still be garnishing them, etc so I wouldn’t rush. Never rush!
Re the soup being less than tasty, you should follow your instinct and add whatever you think will help it along. Years ago I read a letter in a newspaper from someone who had bought a River Cafe cookbook. In the book was a simple recipe that consisted of very thinly sliced strips of courgette drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, and not much else. The letter said said it had no flavour and was a joke. However, because The River Cafe buy all their vegetables from a supplier directly in Italy and use only the best produce available, it was obvious that the reader had tried it using terribly bland supermarket produce. Use a brilliant vegetable and the flavour is astounding. Use a commercially-grown, water pumped and old vege and the results will be less than satisfactory.
What I’m saying is that if you have a very simple recipe, as this is, then every single ingredient needs to be spot-on. To get around this, you need to adapt the recipe. If it didn’t taste of courgette, then add more. Likewise, add more watercress and focus on the peas you’re using — frozen baby peas will be the best to use at this time of year.
Looking at the recipe, however, I’d suggest the following:
- Slice the courgettes into thin (3-5mm) discs as they’ll cook quicker and give more flavour.
- Use both the white and green part of the spring onions, sliced thinly. I’ve never understood how you could “chop” a spring onion anyway. But if your spring onions are large, ease up on them as they’ll overpower both the courgettes and the peas.
- With frozen peas, make sure they’re really tasty small ones. Eat a raw one and see if it has any flavour.
- How good was your stock? As you’re using almost a litre of it, with very little else in the recipe, the stock will be very dominant, so make sure you’re using something really tasty. Otherwise you’re diluting the rest of the flavours
- The bulk of watercress’ flavour is in the stalks — a lot of pepperiness and grunty attitude. However, the stalks are also incredibly fibrous and could ruin your soup. Instead, make your stock and pass it through a sieve. Bring it back to the boil, add watercress stalks (sliced into 1cm lengths) and simmer 5 minutes, then puree and strain again. This will give you a really tasty stock. By trimmed watercress it sounds as if they mean just the leaves taken from the stalks. You need to have a sense of how tasty the watercress is so it may well be you need 85g of leaves alone.
- Mint stalks are fibrous and bitter. You could put them into the vegetable stock for the last 15 minutes of simmering, along with the carrots, etc, before you strain it the first time. Then add the mint leaves along with the watercress leaves as per the recipe. Some shredded on top just as you serve it will give a delicious aroma.
- If you think it needs more yoghurt add more.
- More often than not it’s the underseasoning of food that lets the final meal down. Don’t kill it with salt, but make sure it’s beautifully seasoned.
- And lastly, it says to saute the spring onions in butter and olive oil, but I’d avoid butter. A chilled soup will sometimes have an edge of fattiness if cooked with butter (butter is obviously firm when chilled, oil isn’t). Just use a good quality oil and remember many New Zealand olive oils are already quite peppery. Drizzle a little of that over the soup when plating up.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.