Bread and Brains with Great British Chefs and Merlin Labron-Johnson
If you’re invited to attend a cookery class at Le Cordon Bleu London with Merlin Labron-Johnson, acclaimed chef at London’s Portland and Clipstone restaurants, you’re not going to say no… Well, I’m not, even if the menu comprises Calf Brains on Toast and Brussels sprouts.
The session, hosted by Great British Chefs, who I am lucky to write for occasionally, is attended by a gang of food journos and bloggers, who, myself included, are busy noodling their cameras. Beyond the lenses, Merlin explains that the dishes we’re cooking today are inspired by leftover ingredients.
As an enthusiastic voyeur of online zero-waste forums, I appreciate his methodology. I’m amused by the thought of offcuts and scraps being transformed into haute cuisine, and it’s true, the mark of a really great cook is to be able to work wonders with whatever is available.
There are many clear benefits to cooking with ‘leftovers’. Of course it’s frugal, it pays due to the resources that go into producing raw ingredients, and it’s creatively challenging. I’ve also spotted, there’s a degree of machismo that goes with working with what might be considered waste – an element of ‘how far will you go?’ that appeals to the competitive.
There's a degree of machismo that goes with working with what might be considered waste - an element of 'how far will you go?' that appeals to the competitive.
Take, for instance, the woman on the zero-waste Facebook Group who screws glass jars filled with frozen fruit directly into her blender for quick, if risky, breakfast smoothies. Or indeed, Merlin’s annual attempts to challenge the haters. “Every year at Portland I’ve tried to use Brussels in a dish,” he says. “People always say they hate Brussels spouts, so they are curious to know what we’ve done with them.”
Today we’re cooking Brussels with Burnt Bread Puree: a smooth paste made with charred toast, black garlic and onions. As it warms up, the smell reminds me of hot dog stands: that tantalising scent of frying onions that travels a great distance, tempting you to buy dubious sausages.
The black garlic is fermented, kept in a hot cupboard and left to decompose until it becomes sour and sweet, with ‘a kind of liquorice flavour’ says Merlin. I have a bulb I picked up in Lidl when on holiday in Menorca, and now I know what to do with it.
On top of the puree, we pile our greens – sauteed spouts and blanched strands of sweetheart cabbage – and drizzle a dressing of brown butter and homemade raspberry vinegar. Flavoured vinegar is an excellent way to use up soft fruit or herbs, just add some everyday white wine vinegar and leave to steep for several weeks.
The dish is completed with a garnish of toasted almonds and chervil leaves, and it takes no time to devour. With the rich puree countering any bitterness in the greens, a pile of end-of-season cabbage has been elevated to a thing of beauty.
But, are you brain ready?
‘The next dish is a little bit more rock ‘n’ roll,’ says Merlin, and if by that, he means challenging, I have to agree. While I’ve never been a massive fan of offal, I have eaten and enjoyed it. I’ve tasted brain before – as an unidentifiable element of a trio of something. Like most people, however, I usually cook meat that bears little resemblance to whole body parts.
It’s a big problem, I think, with modern eating habits, that mass food processing keeps us from fully considering the origins and impact of what we are eating. I think this fosters squeamishness, which in turn leads to waste. If you are going to eat meat at all: you should be prepared to eat the whole animal (and arguably, to be able to kill and butcher that animal, although I’m yet to prove that for myself).
While restaurants like St John have done much to popularise nose-to-tail eating, offal is still an acquired taste. As Merlin says, iron and ammonia makes it intensely flavoured, bloody, gamey. ‘People don’t like it because of the smell and iodine flavour that comes when you cook it beyond pink,’ he says. ‘Brains are more delicate,’ however. ‘The flavour is incredibly mild and creamy, a bit like sweetbread’.
'People don’t like offal because of the smell and iodine flavour that comes when you cook it beyond pink,' says Merlin. 'Brains are more delicate,' however. 'The flavour is incredibly mild and creamy, a bit like sweetbread'.
The brains are soaked in milk overnight to remove blood and impurities, then rinsed before being poached in bouillon for 8-10 minutes.
Then it’s our turn to handle them, which, believe me, is a slippery task. We cook them à la meunière, which is a classic French method that translates as ‘like the miller’s wife’. It basically involves frying the meat, more often fish, in a light dusting of flour. We’re using some really nice stuff from Gilchester’s Organic Farm in Northumberland, which is traditionally grown from natural landraces – locally adapted grains – and stoneground to hold in nutrients.
Butter is added to the pan, shortly followed by a generous squirt of lemon juice to prevent it from burning, and the brains are basted a little before being transferred to a baking tray. In goes some concentrated veal stock and as it starts to reduce, tiny capers and parsley.
As the jus is getting thick and glossy, the calf brain is oven-baked for a couple of minutes and a slice of good sourdough placed in the toaster. And there it is: crisp toast topped with half a calf brain, glistening with sauce.
The brains are creamy, as promised. They have a barely-there texture and soft feel reminiscent of set custard. There is none of the bitterness one associates with offal, instead, the flavour comes from the piquant and richly meaty caper and veal jus, the toast beneath lending the dish an essential crunch. Aside from the full flavour, the dish is surprisingly light, like a fish option for delirious carnivores.
I’m enjoying the brains far more than anticipated, but still, I have to put out of my mind the source of the food I’m eating. Putting aside the jokes about Hannibal, it’s only now I realise that, while eating brain is not exactly brave, it does inspire some essential food for thought.
Michelin-starred chef Merlin Lebron-Johnson heads up London’s Portland and Clipstone restaurants. His recipes for Clipstone Sprouting Tops with Burnt Bread Puree and Calf Brains on Toast can be found on Great British Chefs. I was a guest at Le Cordon Bleu courtesy of Great British Chefs – thank you very much!