The specials board.
It’s a wonderful thing. It allows a chef to test new dishes, to see how they sit with the customer. If they go down like hot cakes*, they go on the main menu; if they’re not so popular, they don’t – no harm done. It also allows a chef to minimise on wastage by using up smaller amounts of produce on dishes that may only have a lifespan of a day. Regular customers get something a little different, the chef gets to exercise those creative muscles. It’s a truly beautiful relationship…
…so long as your customers are food-savvy.
I never cease to be amazed by the power of the written word. The way an ingredient, a dish, an entire menu is worded can be the make or break of it. When confronted by a menu item that they do not recognise, some customers might pick up their phone and Google it, others may ask a member of staff, but the overwhelming majority will simply pass over it and order something else. It’s that great British fear of embarrassment. We would rather miss out on the greatest delicacy we may ever experience than have to admit that we don’t know something. This is why it’s so important to compose a menu with your clientele in mind.
And yes, compose is the right word. A menu isn’t just a collection of ingredients that make up the dish – though there has been a trend towards that lazy, unimaginative approach… but that’s for another post – it’s the true pre-starter to the meal. Get the gastric juices flowing here and your job is half way done. At the other end of the spectrum there have been some criminal offences against language in the wording of menus: ‘atop a bed of’, ‘nestling in’, ‘a medley of’, and, my personal bugbear, ‘covered in a blanket of’. I swear, I’ve actually seen this. But again, that’s for another post. My point here is that the most simple description of an item can alienate a customer.
Only last spring I took delivery of some beautiful local poussin. In Mediterranean fashion, they were spatchcocked, smothered in ras el hanout and roasted red pepper, and left to marinade before being chargrilled until crisp and crackling hot. They. Were. Delicious.
But did they sell? Did they buggery.
The weather was beautiful, the location was beautiful, and we were doing a roaring trade. But the spatchcock poussin stayed put.
The following day I wiped clean the specials board and re-wrote it to include ‘Chargrilled spring chicken with North African spice’. It sold out.
Whether it was the spatchcock or the poussin, or maybe both, I don’t know but something kept them from selling. Change the wording to laymen’s terms and it’s golden. The same thing happened more recently when I found myself with a little risotto base to spare. I combined it with some beautiful smoked haddock, chives, dill, rolled it into balls and coated them in panko. And there you have ‘arancini’… little oranges, as the Sicilians call them thanks to golden orange colour they turn once fried. But when I called them such on the specials board they barely sold; change their name to ‘crisp smoked haddock risotto balls’ and I sold out in an hour.
It’s sometimes tempting, especially in youth, to want to show off. To call things by their classical French name, or by the regional colloquialism by which you heard them named whilst on holiday in some far flung corner of the world. I know what these are, look how talented I am is essentially what you’re saying. And maybe you do. Maybe you are. But the cleverest of chefs are the ones who know their customers and understand how to speak to them. Get that right and everything else will be gravy… not, I repeat not, jus.
*Unless they are, in fact, hot cakes. Then the system goes outta the window.
Crispy Risotto Balls
…oh, go on then, ARANCINI
- Begin at the end. The next time you make risotto and you have a little left over, save it. Let it chill down and make these little beauties the following day. You can use any kind of risotto no matter what you’ve used to flavour it. If it’s a particularly flavoursome risotto you may not need to add anything else. As I tend to find myself with a plain base to use I flavour them with all sorts – prosciutto, cheeses, vegetables (garden pea and parmesan are particularly good), and trusty old smoked haddock.
- Take your risotto and roll it into small balls – a little smaller than golf ball sized.
- Dust each ball first in flour, then dip into beaten egg, and finally roll in breadcrumbs. This is a technique known as panéing. When each ball is coated dip it for a second time into the egg, followed by the breadcrumbs (omit the flour the second time round). This double-layer gives extra crispness to the coating.
- Fry the balls in oil heated to 170°C until golden and crisp. Drain well and eat immediately – preferably with something to dip them in!
- If your arancini are much bigger than golf ball sized you may need to transfer them to a preheated oven once fried, just to ensure that they are piping hot right to their centres.