Food: Under wraps

Beautifully formed, intensely flavoured, simple to use: so why is fennel bagged up and sold by supermarkets as exotica?
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Fennel bulb is possibly the latest vegetable to have "Please feel free to do innovative and exciting things to me in a vaguely Mediterranean manner" grooved all over its ribbed, cream folds. No, be assured, it will soon attract the looniest of native cooks, following in the footsteps of eggplants, peppers, globe artichokes, zucchini (I know it used to be called courgette here, but then "here" is different now), tomatoes, beetroot and all manner of other choice vegetation available from each and every plantation across Europe.

One of the most obvious indications of fennel's status is that it can be found wrapped singly, in its very own crispy plastic bag, and displayed on those particular shelves in the supermarket (sporting asparagus, mange- touts, baby sweetcorn, trimmed haricot verts, etc) at least two aisles away from the everyday carrots, celery, leeks, onions and spuds. In other words, it is still seen as an "exotic veg". Incidentally - and I know I have bored you with this before - their hanging neighbours, the supermarket herbs, have now taken a further worrying turn: packs of fresh coriander are being stacked alongside and in the very same rack as good old parsley (both curly and flat), outdoing even basil now as clearly the shopper's latest choice of herbal flinging. Packets of fresh thyme sprigs have still to await their very own rack in my local Tesco. What a dismal state of affairs this still is.

It is certainly handy that the size of the average fennel bulb weighs in at pretty well the perfect individual portion. Once trimmed and cut into quarters, it is a pretty sight when so displayed. The core of a bulb of fennel - often cut out and discarded from the similarly structured cabbage and chicory - is particularly sweet and tender once cooked through, though it is the attendant thick leaves which contain the pronounced aniseed flavour we like so much.

Whenever I cook fennel, whether it be a soup, braised on its own or as a vegetable accompaniment to meat or fish, I always add a dash of Pernod (Pastis, Ricard, 55, what you will) to the dish. I don't know about you, but any little trick that can spruce up the flavour of a dish - so long as it fits - can only be a jolly good thing. Think of a squeeze of lemon in a blanquette de veau; the splash of Cognac in a lobster bisque; the final inclusion of freshly grated Parmesan stirred into a risotto. Of course, the advantage of a trickle of Pernod in a dish of fennel, is that it is already very much at home. Same family. Aniseed all the way. I only wish I liked drinking the stuff. Many's the time I have sat watching the pretty young things saunter past the cafes of the Boulevard St Germain, longing for an early evening glass. Albeit served possibly more elegantly than any other of its kind, the gin and tonic never quite fits that particular moment. (It is worth noting that the lunchtime Bloody Mary, served at Le Flore, is a model of its kind. As is l'addition.)

Fennel soup

serves 4

A creamed vegetable soup is a difficult thing to find in these days of incessant garnish. As far as I am concerned, the only "garnish" to such a bowlful is a sprinkle of very small crisp croutons. Avoid diced fennel (why laboriously puree and sieve if you put bits back in?), its fronds (green on white may be pretty, but very white is very pure) or another pointless herbal scattering. Leave it alone! Croutons, however, are different. Croutons do nice things to the inside of the mouth. Having said all that, I have to confess to adding something to my pan of fennel soup, as I was clearing up after a day with Lowe the lens. Assuming you read last week's piece, you will recall a Parmesan cream that accompanied the potato gnocchi. Well, in a moment of thrift, rather than chuck the remnants down the sink, I stirred the scrapings of that cheesy cream into the soup. All I can say is that it was not one of silliest things I have ever done.

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

400g fennel bulb, trimmed and chopped

2tbsp olive oil

25g butter

4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

2tbsp Pernod (or equivalent)

100mls white wine

400ml light chicken stock (a dissolved cube will do)

150ml single cream

salt and white pepper

In a large pan, very gently stew the onion and fennel in the oil and butter until really soft, without colouring. Note: this should take at least 30 minutes, and is an essential step for any properly flavoured, creamed vegetable soup. Add the garlic and stew for a further five minutes (you may add the garlic earlier if you wish, for a milder flavour). Turn up the heat briefly, until all a- bubble, and add the Pernod. Immediately set light to it, then shake the pan until the flames subside. Pour in the white wine and cook fast for a few minutes (simply to allow the harsher edges of the wine to dissipate quickly), then turn the heat down once more, add the stock with some seasoning, cover and simmer quietly for 30 minutes. Liquidise for as long as you can bear it (a food processor is not as good here), before pushing the result through a fine sieve into a clean pan. Carefully reheat with the cream and a correction of seasoning, if necessary. (Two heaped tablespoons of freshly grated Parmesan and a little more cream may be introduced here, if you wish to follow the path of whimsy.) Hand out a bowl of croutons at table.

Pot-roast of pork with fennel, garlic and tomatoes

serves 4

I think I may have offered up one or two of these messy-braise recipes to you before - you know, everything put in including the meat's rind, some unpeeled tomatoes, garlic including papery skins etc. But I suppose the real reason this style appeals to me so much now, is that having spent almost all of my cooking life trying to make a dish look good enough for people to want to pay for it in a restaurant, here you have the simple joy of good cookery: cookery without waiters, cookery without assumed judgement, cookery all by myself. Note: Do not be concerned that there is not enough liquid for this dish. Just wait until it is cooked, and you will see what I mean.

1.5kg boned, rolled and tied loin of pork, rind intact

salt and pepper

2-3tbsp pork fat or dripping preferably (more flavour), or some very ordinary olive oil

2tbsp Pernod (or equivalent)

100ml white wine

2 large bulbs of fennel, quartered

about a dozen, medium-sized fruity tomatoes, cut in half

16-plus cloves of unpeeled garlic, bruised with the back of a knife

2-3 bay leaves

a sprig or two of thyme

a generous sprinkle of fennel seeds

3-4 pieces of lemon peel (no pith)

juice of one lemon

Put a cast-iron pot, or similar, (one that also has a tight-fitting lid) on to a moderate flame to become quite hot. Preheat the oven to 300F/150C/gas mark 2. Rub the pork all over with a little fat or oil, so that when seasoned, salt, pepper, herbs or spices will stick easily - without this necessary embrocation, all will fall off. (This, by the way, is such an obvious, very important procedure for me when roasting or braising, that I am constantly amazed that no one ever mentions it - not even on the back pages of Hello! or during cookery spots on Richard and Judy ... Ooh, what a give-away!)

Add your chosen fat to that hot pot, allow to smoke slightly and then gingerly put in the pork loin; this, naturally, will splutter somewhat, so reduce the heat accordingly. Turn and burnish the meat several minutes until the skin turns out a uniform gold, with sporadic pustules appearing here and there. Lift out and put on to a plate. Tip off almost all the fat and discard, then pour in the Pernod and wine. Allow these to bubble and seethe together, using a whisk to pick up all those sticky brown bits that have collected in the bottom of the pot.

Return the pork to the pot and tuck the fennel, tomatoes, garlic, bay and thyme sprigs around it. Spoon over some of the juices from under the meat, and then sprinkle with a little fennel seed. Put a few pieces of lemon peel among the vegetables and squeeze the lemon juice over everything. Bring the pot up to a moderate heat over a gentle flame, put on the lid and place in the oven. Cook for about 2-21/2 hours, turning the meat once during this time (if it looks as if the dish is cooking too fast, turn the temperature down). Serve the pork carved into thick slices, with all its vegetable mess around it, plenty of juices, and not without plainly boiled potatoes.

Comments