When I get really excited about something, my brain kind of blacks out in little sporadic blips which is extremely annoying, because I later remember only little drips and drabs. The drips and drabs are often the insignificant or irrelevant details – which is exactly what happened when I recently spoiled myself with a ticket to see Swan Lake performed by the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre here in Jozi.
Now, I’d been to ballets before – mostly of the uncoordinated, plump 6-year old variety, or otherwise the alternate performance-arty type which can become a little frightening – but never a proper, classical ballet. This had been on my bucket-list for years, then suddenly I scored a hat trick – I saw the ads for Swan Lake in the same week that I found the vintage mixer, just after I came back from Mozambique.
So off I tootled to the theatre in a state of great excitement and … it was AWESOME! So awesome that it was a total sensory overload, and one of the frustratingly arbitrary thoughts I was left with was this: I get that the swans’ costumes are floaty and meringue-y, which is why things like pavlova were invented – but that wasn’t as big a deal to me as the dancers’ muscles. Good grief! Their legs fascinated me: I didn’t really get a proper glimpse of their faces. There was a guy in a harlequin outfit who did a twirly manoeuvre that left me a bit cross-eyed; the girls’ calves were bigger than their thighs; they landed on their tippy-toes without squealing in pain. And I thought, well the pavlova is all good and well, but really it should have been more meaty somehow, to be truly indicative of a ballet.
I used (and abused, a little) Ms Khoo’s recipe for baked fish dumplings (quenelles lyonnaise au four) to create this ballet-inspired chicken version; I was a little worried about the outcome as I’ve never eaten anything like it, and the thought of putting chicken fillets through a blender turned me a little green around the edges (I had a school-friend who announced one break-time that she had composed a new song, which she proceeded to sing: “Mouse in a blender, ching ching squish”. Funny how these things come back to haunt you many years later). I decided to try a lighter sauce than the original recipe called for, because I think a rich, heavy sauce would be a bit like that episode of the Vicar of Dibley when Dawn French did ballet (that was by far my favourite episode. WATCH IT). This recipe is far, far too much trouble to feature regularly in my kitchen but it’s not at all difficult and is absolutely divine – definitely one to file away for a shmancy occasion.
To impress 6 nose-in-the-air pinkies-out guests:
200g chicken breast fillets
75g soft butter
75g cake flour
3 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon salt
a hefty pinch of black pepper
a clove of garlic, crushed
Sauce of your choice – whatever you would normally use on pasta I suppose – bechamel, tomatoey, whatever tickles your fancy really.
Day 1 (yes, it’s one of those lengthy ones that requires a bit of planning):
First, get some Tchaikovsky going for atmosphere. Try not to pull any ballet stunts with a knife in your hand. Chop the chicken up roughly and throw it into the blender with the butter; blend to form a revolting, sickly pink paste. I know, it is gross. Bring the milk to a boil in a small saucepan, add the flour and beat hard over a low heat until it forms a strange, bouncy ball. Allow it to cool for 5 minutes before popping it into the blender, adding the egg yolks (all 3 – I just photographed 2 because I think they look like a minion’s bottom), garlic and seasoning, and blitz the whole lot together until smooth. It will look like porridge from your worst nightmare – this stuff is straight out of a Tim Burton movie. Avert your attention from the slimy pink mass and beat the egg whites to soft peak stage. Carefully fold the egg whites and chicken paste together, then gently spread it out onto a tray or shallow dish, cover and refrigerate overnight.
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and carefully, using two large spoons, form the mixture into quenelle shapes. Or if you’re like me and prefer to take the “organic” route, use two tablespoons – one to scoop the mixture up and the other to slide it off into the water. They will be roughly oval – very roughly.
Just cook a couple at a time, so that they don’t bump into each other and cause damage and disaster. Cook them for about 5 minutes each, or until they float to the surface. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a baking dish – gently does it. At this point they will look completely unappetizing and you will start to wonder whether it would be safer for everyone to just order in from the Indian place down the road, but keep going, it’s worth it!
Cover the dumplings in sauce (white wine sauce is my favourite, and the recipe will appear soon – it is too good not to have it’s own blog post) and stick under the grill for a few minutes so that everything is hot and bubbling and everyone’s mouths are watering.
The result is incredibly light but at the same time substantial – just like those buoyant ballerinas :-).
PS: One of my favourite books ever is Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens, and this is one of my favourite lines in the book where Mantalini, the shameless gigolo, is trying to placate his wife after making a comment about Nicholas’ pretty young sister:
‘Do you wish to break my heart?’
‘Not for twenty thousand hemispheres populated with–with–with little ballet-dancers,’ replied Mantalini in a poetical strain.
This has nothing whatsoever to do with chicken dumplings, but I doubt there will be any further ballet-related posts so it was now or never ;-).