Brilliant Butter: 5 cooking ideas
We all know we should be eating less saturated fat and being generally more healthy, but let’s be honest. Nothing tastes better than real butter.
I myself cook with olive oil, rapeseed oil, sometimes ground nut oil too, but I love butter. I own four butter dishes. I have two in use constantly. One for salted and the other unsalted. I've heard all the chat about better fats blah blah blah but come on. Flavour is where it's at, and surely our bodies must react better to a natural animal fat than something created in a laboratory? I've seen how they make margarine and it ain’t pretty, or tasty looking. Trust me. Ditto decaffeinated coffee, but that’s another story. And don't get me started on coconut oil!
It's actually quite easy to make your own butter, though not necessary with all the lovely butters out there. To make your own, first you need to lay your hands on some lovely farmhouse cream. Unpasteurised would be the holy grail, just don't serve it to your kids or your elderly relatives unless you're after the insurance money. Ask at your local farmers market, the guy who sells milk and eggs can get it for you. Just whip the cream in a machine until you have soft peaks, as you would for a dessert, then keep going. When it splits, pour off the watery stuff and beat again, pour off the rest of the water and repeat until it looks like creamy butter, add in some salt for seasoning, drain off the rest of the watery stuff by hanging it in a cloth for a while, or pressing a weight down on it in a dish, and voila, home-made butter.
Here are my favourite butter uses, perfect for your next dinner party:
1. Flavoured butter to go with bread
Grab some softened salted butter and beat it together with some herbs or spices to make what us chefs call a compound butter to serve with bread at the table. Think what will go with the rest of your meal, spice it up with some chilli, lime and coriander. Go retro with pink peppercorns and parsley, or go Mediterranean with some sun-dried tomato paste, chopped olives and basil. Yum!
Grab a double thickness layer of cling film, dollop your soft butter in the centre and roll to form a sausage shape, chill in the fridge and slice into rounds before serving.
2. Butter poached lobster or prawns
I first came across this delight in the French Laundry cookbook, a Californian legendary restaurant. I never did follow their recipe exactly but just used the technique they described. Last time I made this was at the request of a young man for his 21st birthday lunch. Guests lapped it up. So did I.
First of all take 300ml of water in a saucepan, not too deep, you want some surface area for whisking. Add in four or five black peppercorns, a couple of bay leaves, an allspice berry or two if you have them, a couple of strips of lemon peel and a few sprigs of tarragon, parsley or chervil. Bring to a gentle boil, turn down the heat so it’s barely simmering. Meanwhile cut a 250g pack of salted butter into cubes. Using a whisk gradually whisk the butter into the water. Too hot and it will split so just go steady, think cup of tea temperature here.
Once it’s all amalgamated it should be silky smooth, rich and creamy and an enticing buttery yellow, keep the temperature steady, just below boiling point. Now you can add your lobster pieces or prawns, or indeed nice chunks of fish. Gently spoon the warm mix over the pieces, turning them frequently til they're done, constantly swishing them in the buttery velvet coat. Serve up to a round of oohs and ahhs. I like this with something irony tasting like asparagus, spinach or my all-time favourite, samphire. Any poaching liquor left over should not be wasted - best mopped up with some nice bread.
3. A resting juice
All meat and fish needs a little rest before we serve it, to release the muscle tensions created by the heat, and allow the juices to redistribute throughout the flesh and keep it moist.
When I'm resting things like fillets of fish, or steaks, pork chops, things like that, I smear a little butter straight from the dish over the thing to be rested just as it comes out of the pan. This creates a tasty puddle for it to be turned and basted in, the meat juices mingle with the butter and I sometimes drizzle a spoon of this over the carved finished meat on the dish for flavour. Restaurants often do this and it's what sets their food apart from yours, try it at your next dinner bash.
4. Self-buttering greens
When cooking greens such as sexy tender spring cabbage leaves (just me on the sexy there? Ok you win) or kale, spinach etc etc, I like to do something different than boiling or steaming, especially for dinner parties. Cooking them in lots of water does two things:it drowns them and makes them taste watery and meh, and the water that you drain away leaches out a lot of the nutrients and vitamins you're eating them for in the first place. So try this: take a large pan with a lid, pop a splash (about a centimetre covering) of water in the bottom, a knob of butter and a good grinding of fresh black pepper and a pinch of salt. While stirring bring to the boil rapidly, it will melt and emulsify the butter. Drop in the greens, stir about, turn the heat down to medium, put the lid on and let cook in the buttery steam for 3-4 minutes, serve.
5. Sauce thickener
Now the French know a thing or two about food, I'll give them that. A popular way of thickening sauces and gravies is with something called beurre manie. Literally worked butter.
Thickening like this is good for three reasons, it takes less time to cook out the floury taste, you do it at the end so perfect as a correction technique and can be used in an emergency. It always works lump free and the butter makes everything glossy and silky smooth. Ok that’s four reasons, the last one was purely indulgence.
Blend together with a spoon equal quantities of soft butter and plain flour. Beat til it’s smooth. Drop small blobs of this into any simmering liquid you want to thicken. Whisk vigorously, hey presto. Thick sauce. Can be used in any tight spot to fix all manner of naff looking sauces, A proper chefs trick to have up your sleeve. Thank you, you’re welcome.
Now, go forth and butter! Don't forget to let us know your favourites too.