The problem, or one of them, with the modern western diet is that little we eat is a true treat. We can, with a few exceptions, get anything we want at any time of year. Almost nothing is out of reach, physically or financially. Theoretically we could, and I know people who do, eat at fine dinning restaurants most nights of the week. For many of the rest of us, lunch is take-away, and breakfast comes in a grease-spotted paper bag. We're spoilt for choice; every continent and every cuisine a phone call away.
It's difficult, in the face of this limitless choice, to know just what is a treat any more. Only a couple of generations ago (ask your grandparents) chicken was a special meat, a celebratory roast not unlike a ham or turkey; I don't need to tell you what it has become. Even those aforementioned meats, that venerable bird and sublime leg, long the archetypal symbols of a feast, have become weekly dinner fare.
How then, do we mark a special occasion with food when food is no longer special? What's left? Extreme gluttony? Exotic foodstuffs? What grand meal do we roll out when the distant relations converge? What feast can match the festive mood? What shall we carve? What to anticipate? What, ever again, will sit us back in our seats, bellies patted, heads slowly shaking, lolling smiles, glassy eyes, all at the pure joy of a true treat of a meal?
I don't really have answers.
I have, however, a small suggestion. Rather, a single instance wherein I've found a way to keep at least one dish special. It's something of a feat, really, considering how much I enjoy it, but I manage to eat this dish no more than once a year, and that is an unshakable rule. The ingredients are somewhat extravagant; the final result is rich, opulent even. It is the dinner my wife and I ate the evening I proposed and, as tradition dictates, we roll it out nearly every year for our anniversary. It is something of a old-school French dish and is admittedly more than a bit passé. However it combines some of the most delicious flavors in the known universe – lobster, chervil, mustard, brandy, cream – all which make Lobster Thermidor amazing every time.
This is a special meal. Keep it that way.
Right, I know I said lobster above, but this year I've tried something a bit different. A fair bit of this has to do with portion control. The lobsters which are generally available at Sydney's Fish Markets are prehistoric in nature. All the normal ones go to restaurants. The remainder are half-ton, walking barnacles, which might easily win a head-on with a medium yacht. Manhandling one of these giants back to your home would be much easier with a small team of circus animal handlers. Don't even get me started with the the size of the vessel in which these monsters of the deep must be cooked.
As an alternative, this year I chose yabbies - crayfish, crawfish, or crawdads to those of you outside of Australia. Long ago, I used to catch these little freshwater crustaceans in the lakes and rivers where I grew up in Wyoming. If only someone had told me they were edible. Alas.
Here in OZ they are farmed commercially and the most widely available variety has a lovely turquoise shell which, like most crustacea, turns bright red upon cooking. I know plenty of people who disagree, but I rate the meat of a yabbie as far superior to that of a lobster. They are, of course, much smaller than their sea-faring cousins, but this makes for a more sensibly-sized meal.
6 large yabbies, live
1 tbsp clarified butter
30 ml brandy
60 ml cream
2 tsp dijon mustard
2 tsp chopped chervil
1 tbsp cream
1 egg yolk
Put the yabbies in the freezer for 20-30 minutes. This puts them to sleep. Using a large, heavy knife, cut each yabbie in half down the length of it's body. Start at the head end and cut quickly. Clean the “mustard,” that is the yellow paste in the head cavity, by rinsing under cold water. Alternately you can get your fishmonger to do all this for you, but all crustacea have a very short shelf life once they are killed, so don't allow much time between the fish market and cooking.
Melt the clarified butter in a large frying pan on medium-high heat. When the butter is hot, cook the yabbies, flesh-side down, until the meat begins to color. Flip them and cook the shell side until they turn red. Remove them from the pan. Reduce the heat to low and add the brandy. Ignite the brandy and allow the alcohol to burn off.
Mix the 60 ml cream and the dijon together and then add them to the pan. Remove from heat and then add the chervil.
Meanwhile, pick the meat from the yabbie tails and claws. Try to keep the meat in large chunks.
Whisk together the 1 tbsp cream and egg yolk until they are fluffy. Stir this into the warm mixture in the pan.
Divide the meat between two bowls. Pour the cream mixture over and grill (broil) until brown and bubbly. Serve immediately, preferably by candlelight.