First, kill your lobster ... without your child realising what you’re doing
Cooking with Conor Pope: the former Celebrity MasterChef finalist tackles lobster ravioli, from scratch
Cooking with Conor Pope: "Gordon Ramsay never had to wrestle with lobster ravioli and a toddler at the same time"
Each week during November, former Celebrity MasterChef finalist Conor Pope will be undertaking a culinary challenge for Food Month at The Irish Times. In part one, he makes lobster ravioli with fresh pasta.
“Are they alive,” my endearingly empathetic child asks with concern when I tell her I’ve just bought lobster for an absurdly complicated meal I plan to cook.
I lie boldly. “Oh God no. Completely dead,” I say and proceed to re-enact an inverted and crustacean-themed version of Weekend At Bernie’s. Instead of having to pretend a person is in fact alive when they are not, I have to get two living lobsters from the fridge into the pot pretending they are, in fact, dead when they are not.
My plot is executed with grim efficiency and step one on my culinary adventure is completed.
For reasons still beyond me, I volunteered by mistake to take on a four-week cooking challenge that will see me make things I would - in the normal course of events - reject as pointless, or excessively complicated. Think Julie and Julia, but without a cookery book as a guide, and without Meryl Streep too.
First up is lobster ravioli. From scratch. Proper pasta did not exist in Ireland in the 1970s, or at least it didn’t exist in my small part of it. Until I was a teenager, my only experience of the Italian staple came out of a can. We’d buy tinned spaghetti or - sometimes, if my parents were feeling flash - tinned ravioli.
I loved those small squares of “pasta” filled with “meat” and drowned in a gloopy “tomato” sauce. Lord knows what they were made of, but to me they were the height of class. I’d eat them reading a football magazine called Shoot. In among the articles about footballers with unfortunate mullets there was a regular feature asking players about their private lives, including their favouriteTV programmes and favourite films and the like. Invariably, when they were asked for their favourite meal, they’d answer Spaghetti Bolognese. Spaghetti Bolognese ? It seemed so impossibly exotic to me.
It was a different time. Now it is lobster ravioli time.
Step one of my challenge is to find a recipe. There was a time when this would have required me to read cookery books, or ask for advice from gifted cooks. Now I just type the words into Google on my phone and am transported to where I need to be.
I am taken by Gordon Ramsey’s lobster ravioli. It is, my phone tells me, his signature dish and one which saw his first London restaurant garlanded with three stars by the Michelin men and women.
“Right, well if it’s good enough for him and them, it’s good enough for me,” I think. Everything will be made from scratch just like Gordon would have it. Even the pasta. I remember years ago watching a cookery programme which featured fresh pasta. It seemed ludicrously difficult and involved strings of dough drying on every suitable space in the presenter’s home. I resolved never to put myself through that.
But it is a different time now.
I ask my phone how to make fresh pasta. It’s confused and points me to several different methods at once. Do I use special Italian flour or will plain white flour do? Do I need to knead it by hand or can a machine do the work? Do I blend or mix? How many eggs are needed and how many yolks? Do I separate them? Do I crack those eggs into a well? Where will I find the counter space to roll out the pasta? Just how thin does it need to be? And how much of a mess will I make?
With many of the questions unanswered, I queue outside an excellent Italian delicatessen near my home and buy Tipo 00 flour. Once home, I take the easy route and put 600g of it into a KitchenAid with six eggs, a dollop of olive oil and some salt. I am not confident this slapdash approach will work.
Amazingly, it does. Less than 20 minutes later I’ve the pasta rolled up in a ball and tightly wrapped in cling film.
Then I cook the lobsters that cost me €44, but the less said about that the better. Once they are stone cold, I decant the meat from the shell using a nut cracker, and instead of binning the shells as I did the one time before now that I cooked lobster - I roast them for 20 minutes and use them as the core ingredient of my stock.
I chuck the shells into the pot, add onions, celery, garlic and carrots. So far so simple. The next thing on the list is half a bruised lemongrass. I’ve no idea what this means. I’ve bought the lemongrass but its skin is blemish free. My phone tells me to hit the lemongrass with a rolling pin. I do.
I add brandy to deglaze the pan even though it didn’t look remotely glazed and pour in a litre and a half of vegetable stock - it is supposed to be veal stock but at least one member of the Pope house doesn’t eat meat and having already killed the lobster and bruised the lemongrass, I don’t think I can add dealing with veal to my culinary cruelty.
That boils away as I throw a couple of salmon fillets into a food processor and add the whites of two eggs. Suddenly I have salmon mousse. Another first. I also manage to forever lose the blade on the mixer, but that’s another story. I fold the mousse with the lobster - folding is, I believe different to stirring but I have no idea how - and add chiffonades (or tiny slices to you and me) of basil, lemon zest and juice and salt and pepper.
Nearly there now, I think. I’ve been cooking for almost two hours and the recipe guide tells me the whole thing from start to finish should be two and a half hours.
While my stock bubbles like a witch’s broth, I turn my attention to making the ravioli happen. I take the pasta maker I was given as a present a couple of years ago out of its box and hand it to my wife, who is much better at assembling such things than I am. Soon it is clamped to a surface and I start rolling out the pasta into thin sheets, with my empathetic child who, it turns out, is much, much better at it than I am.
She stays calm as the almost translucent pasta rolls out of the machine, while I frantically try and hold it together long enough to reach the place of assembly. With the pasta sheets on a board, it dawns on me that I’ve no plan for cutting it into ravioli. In a flap, I use a pint glass as a cutter. It sort of works. And before you know it, I have many, many small discs of fresh pasta occupying plates and chopping boards all over my kitchen.
I add dollops of the lobster-salmon goo to the center of a disc and place another disc over that and my empathetic child seals them with a fork. We spend a long long time doing this and eventually I have enough to feed five people.
It all goes in the fridge and I go back to the stock. I have been cooking for almost four hours. It is endless.
I drain the stock and set aside half the liquid to poach the ravioli. The rest goes into a pot and is reduced before double cream is added. Without wanting to boast, it tastes amazing. Never mind the ravioli, I could eat this as soup. And the only skill required was the ability to boil stuff.
I make a lemon vinegarette, something I have always been - and still am - useless at, even though it’s just oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. If there is a knack to it, it is a mystery to me. I set it aside.
I am wilting, but need to make tomato chutney. I nearly cheat and use tinned tomatoes, but steel myself. I burn the skin on my hands as I peel the skin off the boiling tomatoes. Then I dice them and add them to yet another pan, with olive oil, salt and more basil, and leave them to stew.
It is time to poach the ravioli. Nearly five hours in and with the dishwasher full for the second time, I open the fridge and am dismayed to see many of my ravioli have lost their perfect form and the salmon-lobster goo has started spilling out from the sides. I banish my empathetic child to the yard for the night and trim them, and use the leftover filling to make impromptu mini lobster and salmon burgers.
Eventually I poach all the ravioli in the stock, drizzle over the pointless lemon vinegarette and dollop some of the creamy lobstery goodness onto the plate alongside the tomatoey stuff.
I look at the recipe again. It asks me to deftly place my micro greens on the plate. I don’t have micro greens.
And, to be honest, I don’t care anymore. It is made. It looks nothing like it is supposed to and would not, I suspect, win me a sprinkle of moon dust never mind three stars.
I curse Gordon Ramsay as I race to the table with the plates. It might well be his signature dish but he has people to do all the prep in purpose built kitchens and almost certainly did not have to run his dishwasher three times and spend a month cleaning up after making it. I’d say he doesn’t have to wrestle a toddler into a high chair before eating it either.
It does, however, taste pretty good. Was it worth the effort? Almost certainly not. Was it worth the more than 60 quid I spent on ingredients? Not a chance. Will I make it again? I actually might someday.
At least it did not require the intervention of the emergency services, unlike the next meal I cook as part of my culinary challenge. But that’s a whole other story.