Heston Blumenthal: Keep a lid on it

I am often asked what my favourite pieces of kitchen equipment are, as opposed to the most important ones. It's a tricky question to answer, but they would, without doubt, include a digital probe, an oven thermometer, an accurate set of scales and a mandolin or Japanese slicer. A main contender to join that list would be a cast-iron cocotte dish made by Staub. (Staub's range is quite similar to Le Creuset pans, which, I have to say, seem much underrated these days - these fairly innocuous looking pans form the basis of a quite wonderful cooking system.)

In the course of writing this column, I have extolled the virtues of low-temperature meat cooking, because this keeps all of the juices inside the meat itself. To those of you who have followed this advice, what I'm going to say next may seem a little contradictory, to say the least.

Meat cookery requires a delicate balancing act. Low-temperature cooking without doubt achieves the tenderest results, but it does have a couple of drawbacks: desirable roasting flavours and crisp meat are not achieved with this approach; and, perhaps even more importantly, because all of the juices stay inside the meat, there are none available with which to make a sauce. In the restaurant, we overcome these problems by combining meats that have been cooked at low and high temperatures, and by making our sauces separately. At home, however, a similar approach can turn into a real palaver, so a compromise is the order of the day. And Staub's cocotte dish provides this compromise.

Basically, when you use a cocotte, you cook your meat, fish, vegetables or even fruit in a covered pan, so that any of the flavour-laden vapours that would normally escape during cooking remain trapped in the pan, thereby forming the basis of a wonderful sauce. At the restaurant, we cook a best end of pork in one of these dishes, and believe you me the resulting sauce is quite incredible.

There are, of course, all manner casseroles that have been specifically designed for this purpose, but to tell the truth almost any saucepan with a lid will work to some extent. It may, however, be necessary to seal the pan first, as in the following recipe from one of the great French chefs, Joël Robuchon. His restaurant was considered the greatest in France for several years, and although he no longer cooks professionally, he is still very much at the forefront of French gastronomy. This classic cocotte recipe is from his book, Ma Cuisine Pour Vous.

Recipe serves two.

Cocotte of duckling and chicory

You will need a casserole with a lid large enough to accommodate the bird.

10 very small heads chicory (about 40g each)
Half a lemon, juiced
1 sugar cube
20g unsalted butter
Icing sugar
1 canette, weighing about 1.6kg (or 1.1kg once prepared)
Salt and black pepper
18g spice mix (make up a larger quantity with 1 soup spoon each of ginger, mace and coriander powder and a coffee spoon of cinnamon, four spice and milled pepper, and 125g salt; store in a clean, dry jar)
50ml groundnut oil
200ml chicken or meat roasting juices (chicken stock will do)
400g puff pastry (ready-made is fine)
1 egg yolk

Pre-heat the oven to its highest possible setting (ideally, this would be around 280C, though many domestic cookers will not get quite that hot).

Discard the outer leaves of the chicory and trim the roots. Bring a casserole of water to the boil, along with the lemon juice and sugar cube. Add the chicory, and place a cartouche on top. (This is a piece of baking parchment, cut to the size of the pan and pierced several times, so that it will sit on top of the chicory and, due to the weight of the water, will keep the chicory submerged). After 25 minutes, drain the chicory and lightly squeeze them to remove any excess liquid.

Heat the butter in a pan over medium heat until foaming and nutty in aroma. Add the chicory and a sprinkling of icing sugar, and colour on all sides. This should take around three to four minutes. Remove from the heat.

Season the inside and outside of the prepared duckling, and rub 10g of the spice mix inside the bird's cavity. In a frying pan large enough to hold the duckling, heat the oil until it is smoking. Add the bird and colour on all sides as quickly as possible - three minutes' cooking maximum. Take care that no fat spits from the pan.

Place the pan in the pre-heated oven and cook for three minutes on each side (ie, lying on each of its legs) and a further three minutes on its back. Remove the pan from the oven and leave the bird to rest.

Reduce the oven temperature to 225C/425F/gas mark 7. Pour the meat juice or stock into the casserole. Rub the remaining 8g of spice mix on to the surface of the duck, and place the bird in the centre of the pan. Lay the chicory around the bird, place the lid on the casserole and set to one side.

Roll out the pastry to a thickness of 0.5cm and cut into a width of 8cm, which should be sufficiently large to wrap around the casserole. Mix the egg yolk with a few drops of water, to make a glaze, and brush this on the pastry. Without delay, wrap the pastry band around the brim and lid of the casserole with the glazed side against the pan, so that it sticks. Press the band firmly on, so that it seals the lid to the pan. Brush the edges of the pastry to help seal it to the casserole.

Place the casserole in the oven for 11 minutes (for a 1.1kg prepared bird) and 12 minutes (for a 1.2kg bird). Remove from the oven, and place the bird on an upturned plate to rest for 12 minutes. To serve, return the bird to the pan and replace the lid. Remove the lid of the pan at the table and carve.

Cocotte of potatoes and peas

This can be served as a starter, as a main course or even as an excellent accompaniment to chicken.

250g Birds Eye frozen peas
18 baby potatoes (Belle de Fontenay or Charlotte work well)
50g rocket leaves
24 salad onions
Salt and pepper
1 small bunch lemon thyme

Trim and halve the salad onions lengthways. Wash and halve the potatoes. Wash the rocket. Pick the thyme leaves (you'll need about a teaspoonful in total). In a lidded casserole large enough to hold all of the vegetables, over a medium heat, lightly brown the cut face of the potatoes in the olive oil - this should take around 15 minutes. Add the onions and brown lightly. Now add the thyme leaves, peas and rocket, season, cover the casserole and cook gently for five minutes. Serve hot.

Cocotte of cod

Almost any fish can replace the cod, as long as it is a thick enough steak (if the fish is too thin, it will overcook before any interplay of flavour has taken place). Allow 175g fish per person. These quantities are per 350g fish.

1 onion
1 clove garlic
75g shiitake or closed-cap button mushrooms
75ml white wine (if cooking a bigger quantity of fish, use a maximum of 150ml)
Natural soy sauce
Thyme
Parsley
1 slice lemon
25g unsalted butter

Finely slice the onion, garlic and mushrooms, and place in a pot, along with the butter and thyme. Cook on a low heat for 10 minutes. Add the white wine, bring to the boil and reduce by two-thirds. Reduce the heat, and add a few drops of soy and the lemon slice. Place the fish on top and cover with the lid. Cook on a low heat for a maximum of 10 minutes. The cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the fish. Sprinkle with parsley and serve, spooning over the onion mix and juices

Heston Blumenthal is chef/proprietor at The Fat Duck, Bray, Berkshire (thefatduck.co.uk)

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.