ALAS, the bright new veg-market-stall lads that replaced our surly barker selling dodgy avocados and expensive fruit have earned a place in a market elsewhere, and we are left with the supermarket and the greengrocer. I do appreciate the greengrocer, but my old irritation with cookery writers who begin assertively, “Only buy the best, freshest. . .” has erupted again. What if you don’t want plastic-wrapped perfection from the supermarket?
Fennel is one of those treats that can sometimes become leathery; so it’s as well to use complementary ingredients to cook and coax them into tenderness when they aren’t to be eaten raw in pale, crisp, plump, liquorice perfection. Fennel gratin makes enough for four, with pasta or a dish of eggs.
2 large fennel bulbs
a handful of cherry tomatoes, or salad tomatoes cut in quarters
4 tablespoons breadcrumbs
4 tablespoons parmesan flakes
freshly ground black pepper
Heat your oven to 180Cº/350ºF/Gas 4 and put a generous knob of butter into a gratin dish to melt. Wash and trim the fennel, keeping any presentable fronds for a garnish or a salad. Cut off the stalks. Cut the bulbs into quarters, and blanch them in boiling water for about 5 minutes, till they are just tender. (You can either cook the stalks with them to reserve for stock, or add them to a stockpot later.) Drain the fennel and toss the pieces in the gratin dish, moving them around to coat them with butter, add the tomatoes, and season with black pepper. Scatter over the breadcrumbs and parmesan, add some butter, and bake for 15 minutes.
Braised fennel and celeriac and/or carrot allows woody fennel to relax a little with its woodier companion vegetables, but as a main dish you would need a whole fennel bulb for every diner.
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
4 fennel bulbs, trimmed and sliced
1 small celeriac, peeled and cut
4 carrots, peeled and cut into batons
a knob of butter
1 lemon, juice and zest
white wine (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley or
Heat the oven to 150ºC/300ºF/Gas 2. Gently sauté the vegetables in the olive oil in a large frying pan, or, if you have one, a hob-to-oven casserole dish, so that they become tender but not browned. Add a generous knob of butter and a seasoning of freshly ground black pepper and salt, and the juice and zest of a lemon — and a small glass of white wine if you like. Simmer everything together, and bake in a gentle oven for about 40 minutes or until tender. Serve with freshly chopped parsley or fennel and a few lemon-zest curls.