It is Friday night, and guests are coming for dinner. You do not know them well but you would like to impress them. Chopped liver, lockshen soup and roast chicken suddenly seem a tad old fashioned — and yet you hesitate to deviate from the norm in case your guests are actually looking forward to a traditional menu on Shabbat.
This is the dilemma David Bitton, executive sous-chef of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, faces every weekend. The hotel is Israel’s best, and plays host to statesmen and celebrities as well as affluent Jewish visitors. To maintain its reputation it has to turn out world-class food which will knock the socks off those diners who do not have cherished Friday-night Ashkenazi food memories.
“The challenge is to bring good technique and taste to traditional dishes,” says Bitton, who, as well as presiding over the hotel’s main Shabbat offering is also executive chef of its gourmet restaurant, the Regence Grill, and thus a man with some hot ideas.
So it was no surprise to be served a delicious tomato jam with the chopped liver, to find little homemade ravioli and julienne vegetables in the soup, and a main dish of chicken leg stuffed with mousse made from the breast of the bird which would stand up against any dish in any fine restaurant on any night of the week.
Even so, these are simple tweaks any home cook could use to impress, insists Bitton, who has won many international cooking competitions abroad. “Our chopped liver is a completely traditional recipe, and the confiture is a simple matter of cooking tomatoes down with sugar and star anise. Sometimes we do it with fennel instead, or even berries in spring — they work surprisingly well. And in autumn we might serve apple chutney with the liver.”
Hand-made soup accompaniments require a little more skill, he admits. Sometimes he makes ravioli stuffed with ground veal and sometimes he cooks up crêpes. But even the King David rings the changes with lockshen or kneidlach — though as befits a five-star establishment, the soup is always made from scratch. Sometimes they make their consommé with veal and beef bones instead of chicken carcasses to achieve a richer, meatier, more sophisticated broth. Finely-julienned strips of carrot, leek and courgette lend a flourish of colour and a touch of added texture.
But even beef consommé is a deviation too far for some diners, concedes Bitton, who adds that although steak is also on offer, he would not dream of not offering chicken on Friday night: “Guests want tradition on Shabbat, cooking that’s not too modern and definitely not molecular.”
Occasionally the bird will come out as an individual poussin, stuffed with chestnuts and hazelnuts or spinach mousse and maybe garnished with an onion confiture. But more often than not, it is this impressive, yet easy-to- prepare chicken stuffed with a mousse of chicken breast mixed with pistachios.
Chicken stuffed with pistachio mousse
Ingredients per person:
● 1 whole chicken leg, boned
● 80g minced chicken breast
● 20g shelled pistachios
● 20g onions, very finely sliced
● 1 tbsp. olive oil
● 1 tsp muscovado sugar
● ¼ tsp cardamom, salt, pepper
● Lightly roast pistachios for 15 minutes at 150˚ celsius with the sugar until the mixture is caramelised.
● Sauté the onion in a little olive oil while the nuts are toasting.
● Blend minced chicken with spices to taste until it is reduced to a mousse-like consistency.
● Stir in the caramelised nuts and sautéed onion.
● Pack the mousse into the boned chicken leg, season with salt and pepper.
● Brush the chicken with olive oil and wrap in foil to preserve the ball-like shape (or bake in disposable circular foil dishes if available).
● Bake for 35 minutes at 180˚ celsius.