Billy is 12 years old. Nearly 13, to be strictly accurate. He lives just over the hill with his sister, Kitty. Billy and Kitty are experienced and discerning eaters, but Billy is rather keener on the cooking side. I know this because we were talking about it the other day. To tell the truth, I was doing most of the talking because Billy is a fellow of few words. When he does speak, his words carry more weight than they might do coming from an old gasbag such as myself.
I asked Billy whether he would like to cooperate in the kitchen one evening, to cook dinner for his family and mine. He nodded. What did he fancy for dinner? He thought and then he spoke.
"Well," he said cautiously, "I like sashimi."
"Right," I said, a bit startled. "And then?"
"And I like duck."
"Right," I said again. "And for pudding?"
"I'll leave that to you."
So it was that on Friday evening, after a hard week on the treadmill, I popped over the hill, loaded with the ingredients. Billy, homework already done, was ready to go. He peeled the ginger and sliced it, and made the dressing, tasting it expertly at each stage. He lifted the skin off the duck breasts. He decanted the honey into a saucepan and set it to warm on the stove. He dressed the plates.
And he ate the lot. As did Kitty and our respective families. There was not so much as a fragment left on any plate. In fact, it was something of a surprise that there was any glaze left on them, so vigorously did we all mop up the smears of sauces.
"What do you reckon?" I asked Billy when we had finished. He said nothing but gave a thumbs up sign with both hands. His eyes gleamed behind his glasses.
Recipes serve four.
Carpaccio of tuna and radish
The joy of this dish lies in its textures: crunchy slices of vegetable; soft, melting fish. I hate to say it, but it sort of fits into the modern healthy-eating obsessions. But the dressing makes it zippily tasty, too. I ripped the idea off a number of restaurants - variations seem to be cropping up all over the place. It's easy as long as you have a very sharp knife or, better still, a mandolin (you don't need one of those expensive, fancy things; mine cost £5.99). You can pretty it up with herbs or other green bits (mustard and cress, for instance, look very nice scattered all over).
1 mooli (Japanese white radish) or 1 packet very young English radishes or turnips
For the dressing
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger
Juice of 1 lime
1 tsp nam pla (Thai fish sauce)
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp French mustard
1 tsp sugar or honey
Chill the tuna in the freezer until firm, 40 minutes or so - this will make it much easier to cut into very thin slices.
Peel the ginger and slice it into very thin needles. Whisk together all the other dressing ingredients, then stir in the ginger and leave to meditate while you get on with the rest of the dish.
Peel the mooli, if using, then slice as thinly as possible, either with a very sharp knife or preferably on a mandolin. Arrange the slices in a single layer on each plate. Take the tuna out of the freezer. With a very sharp knife, slice as thinly as possible across the grain. Cover the mooli/radish slices with tuna slices, then dribble the dressing very sparingly over the fish - you don't want very much or it will drown the delicate flavours of the rest. Decorate with whatever greenery you fancy. (You can, of course, lay the tuna on the plate first, followed by the radish - whatever you think looks prettiest.)
Duck breast with bay leaf and persimmon
Normally I like to cook duck breasts on the bone (achieved by hacking a whole duck into its constituent parts). This prevents them from shrinking in that alarming fashion from a long, flaccid piece of meat that looks large enough to feed three to a hunched bit of rubber that will hardly do for one. However, in this recipe I can see no other way than to do it off the bone, so I cook it longer and slower, and hope that it will not shrivel up too much. I have paired it with persimmon because I love its name (so much more enticing than sharon fruit), its colour and the fact that, when it's very ripe, it's tastes like fruit caramel. And it must be very ripe. We ate it with some pak choi braised in the cooking juices produced by the duck.
4 duck breasts
Salt and pepper
12 bay leaves
25g sesame seeds
4 ripe persimmons
First, the hard part: carefully separate the skin from each breast, leaving it attached at one end. Grind plenty of pepper on to the exposed flesh, lay three bay leaves on the meat of each breast, then place the skin back over them. Sprinkle the skin with sesame seeds and salt, and press in.
Place the breasts skin side down (don't worry if some of the sesame and salt falls off) in a frying pan and cook over a low heat for 20 minutes. Carefully turn them over and cook for a further five minutes. If the skin does not look golden amber at this stage, pop them skin side up under the grill until it does. Keep warm until needed - you can remove the bay leaves before serving, or leave it to the eaters to do so. Keep the juices released by the duck breasts to pour over them when you serve. Slice the persimmons into quarters and place them by each breast.
Oranges in orange water and cinnamon and honey syrup with pinenuts
We wanted something clean and fresh to finish with, or, rather, Kitty did. This dish started with Claudia Roden in her book, Tamarind & Saffron, travelled a little further by way of A Taste Of Morocco, by Hervé Amiard, Laurence Mouton, Maria Seguin-Tsouli and Marie-Pascale Rauzier, before coming to rest with a couple of touches of my own.
100ml orange blossom honey
1 stick cinnamon
1 tbsp orange blossom water
Grated zest of 1 orange
Peel the oranges and slice them across into thin rounds. Place in a dish. Heat the honey and cinnamon in a saucepan until the honey goes very runny. Turn off the heat, add the orange blossom water and leave to infuse for a few minutes. Pour the cinnamon-infused honey over the oranges.
Scatter the grated orange peel over the orange slices and leave to steep for an hour or two in a cool place.
Just before serving, toast the pinenuts in a dry frying pan and sprinkle over the orange slices.