Written by Chef Marli Roberts

The cold kitchen area holds the primary responsibility for the preparation of several courses on the standard menu, as well as for various special events, including buffets and receptions. The garde manger station, or pantry, is generally where all cold appetizers, including salads and soups and any first course items to be served cold are put together. These might include chilled seafood cocktails, mixed green or composed salads, vinaigrettes and other cold preparations. The techniques required to prepare pâtés; terrines, sausages and fresh cheese are the particular domain of the garde manger.

In its strictest interpretation the term charcuterie refers to all food items given to us by the pig and would include sausages, assorted smoked hams, bacons, pâtés and terrines. With time, given the similarities of the products, the multitude of preparations completed under this separate title have also become associated with the garde manger repertoire. However, becoming proficient in these techniques first means learning a broad base of culinary skills, those directly relating to handling basic cold food preparations, as well as those required to prepare hot foods such as roasting, poaching, simmering, braising and sautéing of all fish, poultry, vegetables, grains and legumes.

It is precisely because these skills and responsibilities are so broad that many of today’s most highly regarded chefs got their start in the garde manger as an apprentice or commis chef. In addition, recent years have seen a rebirth of the more traditional practices of charcuterie and cheese making. Handcrafted foods such as smoked hams, sausages, pâtés, fresh and aged cheeses are increasingly available to both the restaurant chef and the home cook.

I find the opportunities and challenges of this area of cooking fascinating and in this speciality my artistic sensibilities find their outlet. The quality of food is still the most important key to success and the visual appeal of the food, a close second. Presenting foods that look their best is a skill that you can spend a lifetime perfecting. To work successfully in the garde manger is to be like an artist, and the colours on one’s palette are the colours, textures, shapes and height of the foods themselves.

Salads appear on today’s menu in so many different guises and are embraced by today’s garde manger with such enthusiasm that one might imagine salads were invented by this generation of chefs. In fact salads have played a key role throughout culinary history. Fresh mixtures of seasoned herbs and lettuces, known as herba salata, were enjoyed by the ancients Greeks and Romans alike. The word ‘salad’ was derived from the Roman word for salt.

In this masterclass, I have chosen to focus on the composed salad, made by carefully arranging items on a plate instead of tossing them together.

A main item such as smoked chicken or trout or a portion of roasted vegetables is arranged on a plate, either on a bed of selected greens or arranged with these greens as part of the plate layout, then dressed.

Some composed salads feature foods that have contrasting colours, flavours, textures, height and temperatures, in order to stimulate all senses of the diner. No specific rules exist for a composed salad, but keeping the following principles in mind would be beneficial in the planning and execution of a composed salad:

  • Flavour and visual elements should combine well.
  • Contrasting flavours are intriguing, whilst conflicting flavours can be disastrous.
  • Repetition of colour and flavour can be successful if it contributes to the overall enjoyment of the dish – but generally too much of a good thing is simply too much.
  • Warm salads are also known as a ‘salade tiede’ and are generally made by tossing the salad ingredients with a warm dressing.
  • Another modern approach is to combine hot and cold elements on a plate.
  • All components of the dish should be able to stand alone as a menu item. In a composed salad the composition of the elements must be enhanced by their combination with the other elements on a plate. This way the diner is guaranteed a more intriguing and satisfying experience than when sampling elements eaten alone.

Curing and smoking

As I have used cured and cold smoked salmon trout in my recipe for a composed salad, let’s have a look at the preparation of cured and smoked foods in general. The first preserved foods were most likely produced by accident. In fishing communities, fish was ‘brined’ in sea water and left to either ferment or dry out. Hunters also hung their meat near a fire to keep it away from scavenging animals, with the consequent result that meat was smoked and dried. Preserved foods by default are saltier and have more concentrated flavours than fresh food, heightened by the use of key preservation ingredients: Salt, sugar, curing agents (like vinegar) and spices.

Cure – is the generic term used to indicate methods of food preservation using brines and pickles and are known as wet and dry cures. A dry cure is as simple as salting food, but more often the cure is a mixture of salt, a sweetener of some sort and flavourings. To ensure an evenly preserved product, food needs to be in direct and even contact with the curing agents.

Brines – when a dry cure is dissolved in water or liquid such as a vegetable or fruit juice it is known as a wet cure or brine. Foods are submerged in the brine, topped with a weight to keep them submerged and allowed to rest in the solution for a few hours or a few days.

Smoke – has been intentionally applied to food since it was first recognised that holding meats and fish near fire did more than dry them quickly – foods took on new and exciting flavours. Today we enjoy smoked food for these flavours, and by manipulating the smoking process it is possible to create a range of products. Besides favourites like smoked salmon, bacon and ham, many unique products are featured on today’s menus: Smoked quail, smoked tomato broth, smoked barley – even smoked fruits and vegetables. Several types of smokers are available. The basic feature they all share is a smoke source, a smoke chamber (to which the food is exposed) and a mechanism for ventilation and circulation. Hickory, oak, cherry, walnut, chestnut, apple and mesquite woods as well as woods from citrus trees are good choices for smoking. They produce a rich, aromatic smoke with few bitter-tasting particles. In addition to hard woods, other flammable materials can be successfully used to give flavour, such as teas, herb stems, whole spices, corn husks, fruit peels and peanut shells.

Pellicle forming – before cured foods are smoked they should be allowed to air-dry long enough to form a tacky skin know as a pellicle. This pellicle plays an important role in the production of excellent smoked items. It acts as a protective barrier and plays a role in capturing the smoke’s flavour and colour. Most foods can be properly dried by hanging them on hooks or placing them on racks. They should be air dried, left uncovered in a fridge or a cool room.

Cold smoking – can be used as a flavour enhancer for items such as pork, fish, chicken breast or scallops. These items are smoked for a short period just long enough to give a touch of flavour. They are ready to be finished to order by such cooking methods as grilling and sautéing. Smokehouse temperatures for cold smoking should be maintained at below 37°C and as low as 8°C to keep food safely out of the bacterial contamination zone. At this temperature range foods take on a deep, smoky flavour, good colour and retain a moist texture. Keeping the temperature below 37°C prevents the protein structure of meats, fish and poultry from denaturing. The products are thus not cooked as part of the smoking process. Fish that is cold smoked and not cooked after smoking has been rendered safe by virtue of the curing process.

Composed salad of pastrami-style cold smoked salmon trout, oven-dried figs, brioche croutons and baby beetroot chips.

Pastrami of cured cold smoked salmon trout
*You will need a smoking device for this

For the brine:

x2 salmon trout fillets (weighing approximately 1, 2kg each)
1 carrot
2 celery sticks
180g sea salt
50g spring onion
1 garlic clove, crushed
130g granulated sugar
15ml whole black peppercorns, cracked
5g fresh coriander leaves
5g parsley leaves
5ml coriander seed, crushed
30ml lime juice

  • Remove the pin bones from the salmon trout and place it skin side down on a stainless steel tray. Purée the carrot, celery, spring onion and garlic in a blender and mix with the rest of the brine ingredients. Pour evenly over the salmon trout so that the fish is completely immersed. Cover with plastic film and refrigerate for 3 hours. Remove from the brine and pat dry, place on a drying rack and return to the fridge for about 45 minutes to allow a pellicle to form.

Prepare the smoker

  • Place a mixture of cherry wood chips, chai tea, strips of lime and orange rind, ground palm sugar, whole cinnamon sticks and a few star anise in a colander and moisten, then turn into the smoking tray. Smoke the fish fillets at a temperature no higher than 25°C for about an hour, then remove the fish from the smoker and place in a fridge to cool down to 8°C.

Prepare and apply the spice crust.

60ml honey
60ml yuzu dressing
1 slice fresh ginger
1 stick lemongrass, bruised
5ml paprika
5ml black pepper, freshly ground
10ml Robertson’s Veggie Spice
10ml coriander seed, crushed
15ml flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
15ml chives, finely chopped
5ml fresh lime zest

  • Bring the honey, yuzu, ginger and lemongrass to the boil, then remove from the heat. When cool, brush evenly over the salmon trout. Gently blend the paprika, peppercorns, veggie spice, coriander, chopped herbs and lime zest then press evenly over the salmon.
  • The salmon portions can be cooked lightly under the salamander or in a hot oven for about 4 minutes, just before serving. Pour some of the brine over the salad component when plating, as a dressing.

Oven-dried figs

6 black mission figs, ripe
icing sugar for dusting

  • Pre-heat the oven to 140°C. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat mat. Quarter the figs, dust with icing sugar and place on the baking sheet / Silpat mat for about 45 minutes until just dried (figs done in this was can be kept in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to one week).

Torn brioche croutons

1 small brioche
garlic oil
30g unsalted butter

  • Cut the crust off the brioche, then cut into thick slices. Tear the slices into irregular pieces no larger than 1, 5cm in size. Heat a pan over a medium heat and pour in just enough garlic oil to cover the base with a thin film. Add the butter, spread the brioche pieces in a single layer in the pan and fry the pieces until they just begin to colour – keep stirring while cooking. Cook until crisp and evenly coloured on all sides, about 10-15 minutes, then keep warm until ready to serve.

Baby beetroot chips

2 baby beetroot, peeled
oil for deep frying
salt, for seasoning

Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 140°C. Line a tray with absorbent paper towel. Slice the beetroot into paper-thin slices. Carefully add the rounds to the oil and increase its heat to 160°C. By increasing the oil’s temperature after the vegetables have been added allows them to cook at a slower rate, which ensures a crisp end product. After about 1-2 minutes, the slices will cease to bubble and be crisp. Remove immediately (before they burn), turn onto the paper towel and sprinkle with salt. Any other root vegetable can be fried in the same manner.

Artichokes stuffed with goats’ cheese

2 whole pickled artichokes
100g fresh, soft goats’ cheese
50g pistachio nuts, finely chopped
5ml Robertson’s Veggie Spice
4 diamonds roasted red pepper, skin removed
4 diamonds aubergine, roasted
coriander sprouts or rocket leaves
Maldon salt

  • Mix the goats’ cheese pistachio nuts and veggie spice together. Using the back of a wooden spoon, open the artichoke from the top, creating a cavity in which to pipe the spiced goats’ cheese. Place the softened goats cheese in a piping bag without the nozzle and pipe into the cavity, then place in the fridge to allow the cheese to harden – this will assist with halving the artichoke more precisely. When the cheese has hardened, halve the artichoke lengthwise, then place on a baking tray and allow to reach room temperature. Toast the goats’ cheese using a blow torch / grill until caramelized. Place on a plate and create a small salad using the roasted pepper, aubergine and rocket/ coriander sprouts, positioned at the base of the artichoke. Season lightly with Maldon salt and serve immediately.