Whenever I give a dinner party, no matter how much planning I do in advance, there always comes a moment when I wish I was an octopus. Moist, firm skin is one desirable quality, but what you really want are the tentacles. The lucky creature is blessed with eight of them and yet it can count the dinner invitations it will have in its lifetime on the ...errr... suction cups of one tentacle. How many dishes does it have to handle at any one time? None. What a waste of arms!
And there am I, getting ready to plate up my main course, polishing plates with one hand, stirring sauce with another, trying to drain the beans over a sink that is overflowing with dirty dishes... how am I supposed to mash the potatoes now or froth up some lemongrass espuma? (Let's forget for a moment that I will also want to find an empty - and clean! - spot to take a picture for the blog!)
Although it's not my dream kitchen, I know I am (relatively) blessed with space, unlike certain other foodbloggers who struggle to find enough space to fit a bin (you know who you are!). But whenever I cook for a big dinner party (or prepare for a catering), I could really do with some help in the kitchen. People who can chop onions, peel potatoes, pluck thyme leaves, wash dishes, keep an eye on things and just generally be helpful. People I can blame when I screw things up, pepole who are deaf so I can curse them and swear at them when things go wrong. Basically like Gordon Ramsay. Give me his kitchen (his private kitchen, in his own home, which apparently cost in excess of 1 million US$) and his staff and I'll look like the perfect domestic goddess any time!
In the meantime, I will have to resort to dishes that look stunning and taste like heaven, but are an absolute doddle to make. A collection of such recipes has just been published in Austria under the title "Schummelküche" (Cheat's kitchen). Although I think it doesn't take the concept as far as it could, meaning that they could have chosen recipes with more wow-factor and even more shortcuts (for example making your own stock can hardly be called cheating), I definitely like the approach and there are some really nice ideas in it.
This strudel of venison fillet smothered in Powidl, a thick and concentrated plum preserve often used in Austrian desserts, and wrapped in bacon is the first idea I tried and it was very well received. Venison and fruit are always a good combination and the smoked ham from Northern Tyrol I used for wrapping also complemented the meat very well - it is dry-cured using lots of juniper berries in its rub, perfect for game, I find. The caramel nuts were a lovely addition, it's these extra touches, anything that you don't usually make in your day-to-day cooking, that make any meal special. They often don't require much effort, but a few of these little gems here and there turn a good dinner into a memorable one - and if you choose them well and do the prep work in advance, you won't necessarily need an extra pair of tentacles either!
Venison strudel with caramel nuts and garlic beans*
150 g caster sugar
12 - 16 walnut halves
750 g venison fillet
2 sprigs thyme
oil, for frying
4 large fillo sheets
1 egg (separated)
8 slices air-dried ham (prosciutto di speck)
4 tbsp prune purée**
400 g fine green beans (trimmed)
20 g butter
1 clove garlic (crushed)
First, prepare the nuts. (You can do this a few days in advance, to save time)
Put the sugar in a non-stick pan, heat until it dissolves and caramelises, taking care not to burn it. In the meantime, lay the nuts on a silicone (or other non-stick) baking mat. When the caramel is ready, spoon it over the nuts, then sprinkle with cayenne pepper to your liking. You will have to work quickly, so that the caramel doesn't set in the pan. Leave the nuts to cool, then store in an air-tight container.
Pre-heat the oven to 180 C.
Cook the beans in salt water until they're soft, but still retaining a bite. Refresh in ice-cold water immediately and set aside.
Clean the venison fillet and cut into 4 equal pieces. Heat some oil in a heavy-based pan, add the thyme sprigs to infuse the oil. Sear the fillets on all sides (2-3 minutes in total) and set aside. Venison is best served medium-rare, so take care not to overcook it. It will continue to cook while you prepare the strudels and go in the oven later as well.
Prepare everything to assemble the strudels: cut each of the fillo sheets in half, then "glue" the halves together with some egg white. Brush the edges with egg white, too. Lay the ham slices on the fillo sheets, spread with the prune purée. Lay a venison fillet on top, season with salt and pepper, then envelop with the fillo sheet to form a tight and neat parcel. Seal with egg white.
Brush the strudels with beaten egg yolk and place on a non-stick baking tray. Transfer to the oven and roast for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and rest for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large pan, quickly fry the crushed garlic and toss the beans in it until they're re-heated.
Serve the strudels with the caramelised nuts and garlic beans, and some mashed potatoes on the side, if you like.
* Based on a recipe in Nathalie Pernstich's "Schummelküche"
** To make your own prune puree, cook some prunes in sherry (or even water) until very soft, then whizz in a blender.