Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Fennel and a visit

Friends from Sydney were in Melbourne over this gloriously-weathered Easter weekend. Good Friday was spent lazing around in the sun reading and thinking, the Artist painting in the background, before slowly making my way into the kitchen for a simple, favourite meal for two very dear friends.

Emma was the first person I met on that first, agonizingly scary day of art school. She wore stripy leggings and an over-sized bright green shirt. I wanted to be her friend immediately. Luckily, though others have wended their way in and out of our lives, Em and I have always remained close.

We’ve shared two homes together, at very different times in our lives. Firstly in our early twenties in a three storey, rambling house in the inner west, then in our late twenties we shared a small, calm flat near the eastern suburbs beaches. Then the Artist turned up at a conference and before I knew it I was living in Melbourne. Em has taught me many things – how to laugh hysterically; how to knit a scarf when I gave up smoking. She’s always been a huge, positive force on my creative life.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the kitchen.

Emma and her lovely partner Will, raised as a vegetarian, are vegetable lovers. And so, what better to cook on a frosty autumnal night than a dish of wine-glazed lentils and tender, caramelized braised fennel?

They loved it. I am very lucky indeed.

Wine-glazed lentils – for 4

This is adapted from Deborah Madison’s ‘Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone’. The lentils are also known as ‘Le Puy’. I’ve never had any trouble finding them – let me know if you do. These can be prepared a few hours ahead.

1 ½ cups of French green lentils, sorted (of little stones) and rinsed

Sea salt and pepper

1 fresh bay leaf

2 teaspoons of olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 large carrot, cut into tiny dice

1 stick of celery, cut into tiny dice

1 garlic clove, very finely chopped

1 tablespoon of tomato paste

1/3 cup of red wine

1 tablespoon of Dijon Mustard

2 tablespoons of butter or extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons of chopped parsley or tarragon

Place the lentils in a saucepan with 3 cups of water, 1 teaspoon of sea salt and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a lively simmer and cook until the lentils are tender but still hold a little texture, about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile heat the oil in a medium-sized saucepan. Add the onion, carrot, celery and ½ a teaspoon of sea salt and cook over a medium heat, stirring frequently until the vegetables are browned, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and tomato paste and cook for 1 more minute, then add the wine. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and cover with a lid. Simmer gently for 10 minutes until the vegetables are tender and the liquid is syrupy.

Stir in the lentils with their cooking water and the mustard. Simmer the whole lot until the sauce is mostly reduced, then stir in the butter and season with pepper. Serve sprinkled with the parsley.

Braised fennel – for 4

Fennel is my favourite vegetable; here it is cooked in a way that will convince anyone of its culinary virtue. It’s very easy – don’t let the long method fool you.

6 bulbs of fennel

2 tablespoons of olive oil

2 onions, peeled and finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 fresh bay leaf

A few sprigs of thyme, leaves only

Sea salt and pepper

¼ cup of mirin (sweet Japanese cooking wine)

1 tablespoon of unsalted butter or 1 tablespoon of good olive oil

Choose the biggest sauté pan you have. It must have a lid for this to work, though you can fashion a make-shift one out of kitchen foil.

Trim the tops from the fennel, reserving the feathery fronds and then discard any badly bruised outer leaves. Finely chop the feathery bits. Carefully trim the root end, leaving it in tact. Cut in half from top to bottom and set aside.

Warm the oil in the pan over a medium-high heat and toss in the onions. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes before adding the garlic and herbs. Cook, still stirring, until the onion just starts to brown.

Push the onions to one side of the pan. Add the fennel, cut side down, in a single layer. Spoon the onions around the fennel, sprinkle in a little salt and pepper then add one cup of water. Cover tightly with a lid (or some foil if you’re sans lid), lower the heat to medium and cook until the liquid has mostly off (about 10-12 minutes).

Give some of the onions a stir, taking care not to move the fennel. Add ½ cup of water, pop your lid back on and bubble away for 15-20 minutes. It should be tender but still a little firm when pierced with a sharp knife.

Remove the fennel from the pan to a plate. Pour in the mirin and ¼ cup of water. Add the butter and scraping the caramelized bits from the pan as you go, stir well. When it’s reduced by roughly half, add the chopped feathery fennel tops.

Place a mound of lentils on four plates, distribute the fennel, cut-side-up and spoon the sauce over the top of the fennel.

There was also a salad, dressed with red wine vinegar and an orange-scented olive oil.

There was a dense, Passover-friendly cake too.

Cake, later.

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