Ask Peter: Fennel bulbs
A while ago I had delicious veal cooked with fennel at an Italian restaurant. It is fennel and veal season now. Could you suggest a recipe that combines the two? What other meat dishes do fennel bulbs (as opposed to fennel seeds) work with?
Thanks, Robin Norris.
Fennel is a delicious ingredient as it is incredibly aromatic in a very subtle and food friendly way. It imparts a mild anise flavour, which I adore, and yet also adds background depth and flavour to dishes. Thickly slice it after trimming off any dodgy looking layers. Add just enough vege or chicken stock to cover it, maybe with a big knob of butter, a great slug of olive oil or a small cup of cream, and then slowly cook it with a tight fitting lid in a heavy based pan.
Once it’s become very soft and tender, puree, adding just enough of the cooking liquid to make the puree a little less tense. Then it’s terrific used as a sauce to go with fish, chicken, pork or meatballs. you can add one of many things, from thinly sliced garlic, orange zest or a decent pinch of smoked paprika once it comes to heat, or some picked spinach or sorrel right at the end before you puree it.
Another way to prepare fennel is to cut the heads in half from the base up through the stalks.
Boil gently in lightly salted water until you can poke a skewer through the flesh, then drain and leave to cool. Make a stuffing — something like breadcrumbs mixed with olive oil or butter, grated parmesan, mustard or horseradish, chopped garlic and parsley and use this to stuff between the “cups’’ of the bulb.
Well and truly pack the stuffing in, but make sure the halved heads stay in one piece. Lay in a baking dish, sitting side by side with the stuffing facing up. Make sure the fennel is packed in so that the pieces are holding each other up, then bake at 180C until golden on top.
Serve with, well, pretty much anything that will go with the stuffing ingredients you’ve used.
If roasting fennel, you can just cut the heads lengthways into 4 or 6 wedges, tuck in among the meat or fish you’re roasting and cook until golden and tender.
Add your fennel (whole or cut into wedges) no more than 40 minutes before the meat is cooked. If roasting it alongside something that will cook quicker than the fennel (a trout, chicken leg or breast) you can boil or steam the whole heads of fennel first for 10 minutes, cut into wedges, then tuck them in as you put the meat or trout into the oven.
Fennel barbecues well. Just slice lengthways around 5mm thick, toss with oil, and cook on the barbecue grill. The fennel will come apart somewhat, and you could lose some of it between the grill, so you can also cook it in a heavy pan over a hob. If you do, toss it with a little balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil and leave to marinate for an hour at least until cool, tossing it occasionally.
It’s also delicious eaten raw — thinly sliced crossways into “rings’’ (and I do mean thinly) and tossed into a salad. Add some orange segments and juice, picked tarragon, shredded witloof and olive oil and it’ll be perfect with a grilled veal or pork chop, chicken or fish.
Tossed with thickly shredded watercress, a chopped salted anchovy (rinsed and patted dry — making sure no bones are evident), capers, grain mustard and lemon juice, this is a refreshing garnish for lamb.
With regards to the veal — it’s a very versatile meat– and is more akin to very young lamb and pork. So anything they go with will be pretty good with veal, even a light mint yoghurt and baby potatoes.
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