If I’d happened upon fennel on a restaurant menu a year ago, I would have instintively scanned on past it and selected something else. I shamelessly judged fennel. It wasn’t it’s bulbous shape or it’s wild hairy fronds that made it so unpalatable to me but for the lone reason was that it is so frequently descibed as the twin sister of star anise. I find star anise repellant, and unforgiveably fennel was tossed into the same wretched boat and sent off to sea far far away from any fork of mine.
Needless-to-say my taste buds have become more disposed to fennel, of late. Star anise? No, no, no! Despite it’s plucky hair-do, fennel has a delicate nature- far from it’s siblings, star anise and liquorice. It’s calm, gentle, unpretentious and such a team player! How wrong I was! I had eaten fennel cooked in all the wrong ways (usually sliced too thickly, or undercooked). Fennel, like any other vegetable, prepared badly just won’t taste good. Don’s overcooked broccoli is revolting, for instance. Well, in fairness it would be revolting if I over cooked it too but I try not to let that happen. Don blames his mother for his inability to serve al dente vegetables but I blame it on the fact that he puts it on to cook and then slumps himself on to the sofa. Fennel is much more forgiving than many vegetables and braised or roasted until wilted only adds to its character.
A key note- fennel needs to be eaten fresh and letting it go limp in the refrigerator is simply inexcusable. Slice it paper thin on a mandolin and add it to a salad and its delicate crispness only enhances what could otherwise be a boring heap of greens. Add a fine dice of it to a tomato sauce and it adds a whole new dimension of flavour. Caramelise slices of it in the oven, (which is what I’ve done here) until it goes soft and sweet and it’s sublime. I’ve paired it with a tangy and creamy risotto, which along with a chilled glass of sauvignon blanc, is just what the doctor ordered. Sighs of pleasure and second helpings to ensue.
Fennel & lemon risotto
l love the tangy creaminess of this risotto- if anything I would add more lemon! It’s all the comfort one needs on these cold nights to come.
Diet facts: Creamy, comforting, delicious. It’s everything a woman could ever want.
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 large bulbs fennel, one sliced length ways 1 cm thick and the one diced
drizzle of honey (about 1 tsp
few sprigs of thyme, leaves
1 small onion, diced
1 1/2 cups risotto rice
1 glass white wine or vermouth 4 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup lemon juice (2 lemons)
zest 2 lemons
1/4 cup crème fraîche
1 Tbsp butter
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1/ Heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6. Toss the sliced fennel with 1 Tbsp of the oil, drizzle with honey and scatter with a few thyme leaves. Put onto a roasting tray and into the oven for 30-40 minutes turning a couple of times. You want them to caramelise so depending on how hot your oven is will determine how long it takes. If they begin to stick, add a splash of water to the pan.
2/ Meanwhile, start the risotto. Heat up the stock in a small saucepan and let sit at a very gentle simmer. In a large straight-sided pan (25cm/10 inch base is ideal), heat the remaining 1 Tbsp of oil over a medium heat and add the chopped onion and chopped fennel to the pan. Stir to coat in the oil and then cover and allow to sweat, stirring every now and then for 15-20 minutes or until very tender. Remove the lid, turn up the heat, stirring every once in a while until the onion and fennel are golden. Again, add a splash of water to the pan if they begin to stick.
3/ Add the rice and the leaves from a couple of thyme sprigs to the pan, stir to coat and then add the wine, stirring until the wine is almost completely evaporated. Start adding the stock, a ladle-full at a time, without adding additional stock until nearly all has evaporated. Stir the rice whilst keeping it at a gentle simmer the whole time.
4/ Once all of the stock has been added and the rice is cooked but still has a bite to it, add the lemon juice. Cover and let sit for 5 minutes and then stir through the lemon zest, crème fraîche, butter and parmesan and season to taste.
5/ Serve the risotto topped with the caramelised slices and scatter with some thyme leaves.