I think I may have been a salamander in a previous life, because I just love smoke.
Smoked anything. Anything, for me, is better if it's smoked. Buying bacon? I always go for smoked, even if a recipe specifically calls for unsmoked. Haddock? Smoke it, it makes it better. (Obviously by that I mean hang it up in a room over burning things to give it a unique aroma, rather than stick it in a pipe and inhale it). Smoked garlic has the most incredible rich scent, though I've always found that it mellows disappointingly if you cook it. If you've never tried smoked chicken, you don't know what you're missing. It's like eating barbecue chicken without having to actually barbecue it. Try it in this amazing smoked chicken and mango rice salad. When I don't want to splash out on smoked chicken, I go for mackerel instead. I love mackerel in all its forms, but particularly when it's scattered in firm, meaty flakes over a salad. Smoked trout is a lovely alternative, much more mild but still possessing the richness to accompany ingredients such as eggs or asparagus.
These are all fairly standard. What I particularly love is finding an unusual smoked ingredient. Smoked quail eggs are something I tried recently, and found utterly addictive and wonderful. There's something about the way the bittersweet tang of the smoke couples with the creaminess of the egg that makes for an incredible taste experience. I once found a jar of smoked roasted peppers in oil, which were sweet, slippery, smoky and delicious. In Italy I sampled smoked swordfish, sliced wafer thin and arranged in succulent, gossamer-like folds on a plate, drizzled with olive oil and tasting simultaneously of smoke and of the sea. I've been eyeing up smoked sardine fillets in the deli section of M&S for months, not quite able to bring myself to splash out on them (no pun intended) but knowing it's inevitable as I can't resist the allure of smoke.
Essentially, if I see 'smoked' before any ingredient, it's going in my mouth.
Smoked duck is a new and firm favourite. Fresh duck breasts are one of my all-time favourite ingredients, mainly because they're quick to cook, can partner with exotic fruity flavours (try this lovely smoked duck, fig and mozzarella salad, for example), and can be served pink and bloody.
I also think I might have been a T-Rex in a previous life, given my penchant for meat that is basically still moving.
You can sometimes find smoked duck sold pre-sliced, but in my opinion it's much better to buy a whole smoked duck breast and slice it yourself. It's fresher, sweeter, and more tasty. I'm lucky enough to find them at my butchers, but you can sometimes get them in good delis or supermarkets. The organic butcher in the Covered Market in Oxford (one of my favourite haunts when I was at university) sells whole smoked chickens vacuum-wrapped for about a fiver. These are a total bargain and there's nothing more satisfying and aromatic - or more oily - than sitting down with the whole bird and rampantly stripping chunks of succulent perfumed meat from its carcass. Memories like this make me miss Oxford the most. Not those of my friends or anything, they pale in comparison to a large hunk of smoked poultry.
I came up with this salad because I wanted to find a recipe to use this gorgeous chocolate and vanilla infused balsamic vinegar from the Gourmet Spice Company, whose blackberry and rosemary balsamic I wrote about recently. They're not asking me to write this, I should add - I just bloody love their flavoured balsamic vinegars.
Chocolate and vanilla...in balsamic vinegar? You may think it sounds mad. But then you obviously haven't dipped your finger (or a piece of bread, if we're being hygienic here) in this heavenly elixir and had a taste.
The richness of the cocoa is the perfect match for the deeply flavoured balsamic, which has a hint of dark sweetness anyway that is perfectly complemented by the flavour of cocoa. The hint of vanilla gives the whole thing a pleasantly light, fruity taste. It blurs the line between sweet and savoury in an unusual and delicious way.
I came up with this salad essentially by thinking of all the things that I know work well with chocolate, and putting them on a plate together. Pears and chocolate are one of the most heavenly combinations known to mankind. Nuts obviously work well too, particularly walnuts whose bitterness counteracts the sugar content. But would you ever have thought of duck and goat's cheese working with chocolate?
It's not too surprising; venison and chocolate is a well-known pairing, and duck has a similarly rich gamey flavour. Smoked duck has even more depth, and is so rich that it desperately needs something to stop it cloying; enter chocolate. Goat's cheese works amazingly well; something about its light tanginess is excellent against the darker, deeper aroma of cocoa.
I caramelised some sliced pears in a little butter and brown sugar. I mixed these with slices of smoked duck breast, a handful of rocket, crumbled walnuts, chunks of soft goat's cheese, and a generous drizzle of the chocolate and vanilla balsamic. I tried making a vinaigrette using rapeseed oil, as its flavour isn't too intrusive, but I found that the oil made the whole thing rather greasy and unpleasant, totally detracting from the flavour of the vinegar. This beautiful vinegar is sweet and mild enough that it doesn't need anything else; you can splash it, unadulterated, over your salad.
I was sceptical that all these ingredients would work in harmony, but I needn't have been. Instead, I was rewarded with one of the most invigorating, delicious and unusual salads I've ever made. There's a perfect marriage of textures - dense meat, soft tangy cheese, crunchy walnuts and juicy, grainy pear. There's a gorgeous relationship between all the individual flavours, which stand out on their own and combine beautifully with the chocolate and vanilla. The acidic, cocoa-rich bite of the vinegar prevents the combination being too rich or confused, bringing everything together.
Plus I think it looks beautiful, with all its different colours and textures. If you can't get hold of this vinegar (you can order it online), try using ordinary balsamic and warming it with some grated extra dark chocolate. I promise you, this is an incredible salad; you need to try it soon.
Smoked duck, goat cheese, pear and walnut salad with chocolate & vanilla balsamic (serves 2):
2 medium pears
A knob of butter
2 tsp brown sugar
1 large smoked duck breast, thinly sliced
150g soft, mild goat's cheese
A large handful of walnuts, toasted if you like
75g rocket, spinach or watercress (or a mixture)
Chocolate & vanilla infused balsamic vinegar (or normal balsamic - you could grate in a little strong dark chocolate and warm it to get the flavour)
First, make the caramelised pears. Quarter the pears, cut out the core and slice lengthways into slices about 5mm thick. Heat the butter and sugar in a non-stick frying pan until bubbling, then add the pears. Cook over a high heat until caramelised on one side, then turn over and cook for another couple of minutes, until soft and golden.
Arrange the salad leaves between two plates. Arrange the slices of duck breast and pears on the plate, then scatter over chunks of goat's cheese and the toasted walnuts. Before serving, drizzle with the balsamic.