Fennel has shown up at the farmers’ markets here. I have always wanted to love fennel but I have always found it to be incredibly finicky. You can shave it raw for a nice refreshing salad but to get fennel cooked so that it is firm without being too crunchy or too soggy is something that has eluded me. Thought of perfectly cooked fennel, deeply caramelized keeps me coming back to try.
I have read a lot about the merits of sous vide for cooking meat and fish. I haven’t, however, read a lot about sous vide and vegetables. It turns out that cooking sous vide allows for better retention of vitamins (I even found a study) and allows you to force desired flavorings into the food in a remarkable way (edible cocktails anyone?). In the case of fennel you can cook it until it is done but still firm and then quickly sear it in a pan and enjoy some of the best fennel I have ever had.
Carmelized Fennel (Borrowing heavily from Keller’s Under Pressure)
Sachet: Bay leaf, thyme, pepper corns, star anise
Two medium fennel bulbs
Chop off the fennel tops. Remove any damaged leaves from the fennel leaves and/or peel the outside. Slice the fennel into 1/2 inch sized wedges trying to keep a piece of the core for each wedge. Toss the fennel with some pernod, olive oil, and a pinch of salt. Vacuum seal with a sachet. In my case I used two bags each with a sachet. Cook at 85.5 C for 40-60 minutes until tender. I was closer to 60. Pull them out of the bags and pat dry and then sear in a skillet with some canola oil.
I added them to a “no kids eating dinner” salad with beans and radishes from the garden, lettuce from the market, bread toasted in butter, tuna, olives, and a little cheese. I tossed all the ingredients separately with a champagne vinegar and honey dressing to taste adjusting salt and pepper accordingly. The fennel had the wonderful deep flavor I’ve always wanted with just the right texture. Wonderful.
Every cook seems to have them. There may be a good reason for one or perhaps it is just fear of the unknown for another. I’m talking about demons of course. In particular cooking demons. A friend of mine had the same demon and her courage encouraged me to face one of mine: artichokes. I’ve never been particular keen on working with artichokes. Their thorny demeanor coupled with their extensive prep time and predisposition to turn an unsightly gray seemed enough to focus on other foods. I resolved to keep turning artichokes this season until the demon had been excised. For the most part I’ve been sous-viding them with herbs, lemon and olive oil. They are quick to cook that way and taste great. This week I decided to go for broke and attempt a version I had recently at a restaurant called Locanda here in San Francisco. In truth the meal was not as good as I had hoped but it did start with what they call a Jewish Style Artichoke and it was amazing. This is a recipe that apparently traces back to Jewish cooking in Rome but really it is a fancy way of saying deep fried artichokes. And the frying happens in olive oil.
The recipe is simple enough, clean your artichokes as usual. Mine were excellent ones from Fat Cabbage Farm. I tried to open the “blossom” a bit with my fingertips by pulling outward and then dropped them into some iced, acidulated water. I then heated some olive oil for frying. Because it is so expensive I opted to only go about one to one and half inches deep and to cut the artichokes in half but they are traditionally served whole. Before I cut them I placed them top down on the cutting board and pushed to spread them open even further. The olive oil was a bit too hot when I put them in but I just fried them until I could pierce them very easily and put them out to drain. I then sprinkled some salt and lemon on them and my wife and I ate them before they cooled. The leaves taste like nutty potato chips and have this wonderful crunchy texture. The inside is meaty artichoke all the way. Excellent. Give them a try!
In other news I am doing well. Apologies for not writing in so long but work and life have been getting in the way. The garden is looking great with the help of some early warm weather. I have planted eighteen tomato plants which I will probably regret later but so far I’m only excited. Seven are for sauce. I call them “the girls” since I usually plant early girls for this. This year I subbed in a couple “valley girls.” How can you pass on a name like that? I am trying a new growing technique for these which is to grown them up a string that you can lower as the season progresses.
I’ll let you know how that goes. So far signs are good.
For quite a while now I have been making tomato sauce for the winter larder. At first the tomatoes were purchased by the case from farmers I knew (I still miss you Ella Bella!) and I would just freeze batches in bags. Over the years the needs grew and the freezer overflowed so I started trying to can part of the supply. Now the entire winter supply is canned and the tomatoes (“the girls” as I call them) grow along the side of the house. It’s been a cool year in these parts (hope the grapes are ok!) so the tomatoes have been slow to ripen but today marks the conversion of the first nine pounds of the season to sauce. My sauce “recipe” is simple. A friend gave it to me after a cooking experience in Italy. By way of necessity (my pots weren’t big enough!) I altered it a bit for mass production. First I slice the tomatoes up and put them in a medium oven to cook them down a bit.
Besides fitting in my pots the nice thing is you get some caramelization on the tomatoes and the pan. Be sure to get it all off the pan using some water and a wooden scraper. It makes the sauce amazing. Here’s a shot after some time in the oven.
I then put them in a pot with some red onion and a few sprigs of fresh basil. I also add a little salt but for the most part the sauce is under-seasoned so I can do whatever I want with it later. After the onions have cooked and softened I break out my trusty food mill.
This is a great and inexpensive tool that really should be part of your kitchen. You can make incredible mashed potatoes and soups with it and you can use it to take the skin and seeds out of the tomatoes when making sauce. They are so useful I’m going to insist you go out to your local kitchen supply store and get one right now. No really, I’ll wait…. Ok, I run everything through and then make sure I reduce to the consistency I like in my sauce which is pretty thick but do whatever you like. I add 2 tsps of lemon juice to each jar just to be safe and then can in the normal way. If you haven’t done it I would definitely encourage you to try. Homemade sauce is amazing and there is something very satisfying about the final product that sits quietly on the shelf until the middle of winter!
Dill Scented Salmon
No matter how much fun you have on vacation it is usually nice to get home. There is something very nice about familiar surroundings and, if you like to cook, familiar places to get food. Nothing much simpler than seared salmon. I did salt and pepper both sides and then rub some chopped dill on the meat side. Get the pan smoking hot and add a little oil. Put the salmon in skin side down and gently apply pressure so the skin has good contact and the meat doesn’t curl. Cook for 3-5 minutes per side to the doneness you like and then let it sit for a few minutes. In this case I plated it over some padron peppers and had a lovely meal.
This is my idea of a nice light supper or lunch. Figs are finally starting to come in around here. Add some cheese and bread and enjoy.
Finally the first tomatoes ripened up while we were away. The first were a purple cherry, early girl, and stupice. I chop them and mix with salt and olive oil to taste. I like to set this aside to draw out flavor and juice and soften the tomatoes. While that is going on, lightly brush some bread slices with olive oil and grill or toast them. While they are still hot rub them with a peeled garlic clove and then sprinkle with a bit of salt. Add the tomatoes and enjoy the first fruit from the garden.
One of the things I did not know about before I went to Italy was sformato. When I was in the Bologna region a lot of meals started with these light custards, usually featuring vegetables, and they were delicious. You don’t hear so much about them in the states but that should change! So when I brought the morning’s garden harvest in and thought about the other things on hand I thought sformato. This may be a bit west coast to count as a sformato but my heart was in the right place :).
Grilled Squash Sformato
5 medium sliced squash sliced 1/4 thick and roasted in oven with olive oil
Several handfuls of garden greens sauteed
Several shallots sliced and sauteed
2 c bechamel
4 oz goat cheese
1/3 c grated parmeggiano
3 eggs separated
2 egg yolks
In this case the greens were cavalo nero and radish greens that I sauteed quickly. The squash was roasted in a 350 oven for about 30 minutes and then sliced into matchsticks. I mixed everything together whipping the egg whites and folding them in in two batches. Put the mixture into prepared ramekins (butter and flour) and baked in a water bath for 30 – 45 minutes until a cake tester comes out clean. Allow to cool a bit and then savor.
Some people invest in pork or corn futures. Others in Bordeaux futures. I, on the other hand, invest in sauce futures. Friday night is pizza and movie night in these parts and the pizza needs to have “Dadda sauce” on them. This is the name my daughter gave the tomato sauce I make. This means I need to make at least 200+ pizzas worth of sauce which doesn’t even include various other tomato sauce needs. Last year was the first year I made the entire batch from tomatoes we grew, somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 pounds worth. This translated into about 48 jars of tomato sauce. And, of course, the tomatoes are starting to come in and I still have a case of jars. Oh well, better safe than sorry.
Here is the first label my daughter did for the sauce…