Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Braised fennel

Fennel is a very underrated vegetable, I think - we don't eat nearly enough of it in the UK and it can be hard to find as many supermarkets simply don't stock it, not even the bigger branches. And with greengrocers in ever-dwindling supply, finding fennel can be tricky. All of which is a shame as it's tasty both cooked and raw and it's the perfect companion for pork.

It has a pronounced aniseed flavour so it's not surprising it's used as a flavouring in that most aniseedy of drinks - pastis. I like to add fennel to fish soups, or slice it thinly to make a crisp slaw in summer, when the warmer weather demands salads. It's also delicious in its own right when cooked and makes a good side dish for a pork chop or sausages.

What you need: 
2 medium bulbs of fennel
Olive oil
About half a pint of vegetable stock
Seasoning

What to do: 
Heat the oven to about 160-180C. Trim the fennel by slicing off the top stalks and paring the root to remove any brown hardness. If you have fronds, set them aside. Quarter the bulbs and brown gently on all sides in a frying pan or sauteuse with the olive oil.  Transfer to a heatproof dish, sprinkle over the finely chopped fronds, season and cover with the stock. Bake for about 45-60 minutes - they are done when you you can easily insert a fork into the base of the stem. 

Cook's tips:
Choose the freshest bulbs - they should be bright white with pale to mid-green tips and feel very firm. Don't buy if they look dry and wrinkly or they are starting to turn beige or yellow.

The fronds taste like dill - they can be used as a herb in their own right or used as a dill substitute. Just chop finely after washing. 

To boost the aniseed flavour, add a glug of pastis to the pan to deglaze it before transferring the dish to the oven.

You can turn it into a gratin by topping it with fresh breadcrumbs and a little grated parmesan. Bake as usual, add the topping then pop under a hot grill until until it's crisp and golden.