Posts Tagged ‘Fennel’

Baked Feta

I love the texture that feta acquires when baked, firm and compact and steak-like and very different from its crumbly fresh incarnation,  and I love to season it with assortments of garden and wild greens gathered as the inspiration strikes.

For this infinitely adaptable recipe, you will need a quarter cup of drained capers, two cloves of garlic, a quart loosely packed of very flavorful chopped greens and herbs, plenty of extra virgin olive oil, and a block of feta sized according to your appetite. This dish can be anything from a meze to a full meal, depending on the size of the feta block. Just be sure that it’s high quality; this is a good time to check out your local Middle Eastern import store. Cut two “steaks” of the desired size, being careful not to crumble them.

Have ready olive oil, two cloves of garlic chopped, and a handful (maybe 1/4 cup) of capers, rinsed of brine and squeezed dry. An optional but very pretty addition is some red pepper, roasted, peeled, and chopped, or some red chiles roasted, peeled, and sliced.

Next, choose your greens. I decided that I wanted the flavor to be bright, tart, and lemony as well as herbal, so I started with 15 good-sized wine grape leaves. If you are going to use fresh grape leaves, please read my post on choosing grape leaves first, because some are unchewable and will ruin your meal.

I added dandelion leaves, the new ones that have grown after the plant bloomed, which are tender and only slightly bitter. I used about a dozen, cutting the stringy ends off as shown.

Then a double handful of mulberry shoots, using only the ones that are new, bright grass-green, and snap off easily with very little use of force.

Finally, some fennel shoots, the top of the bloomscape as shown, before the flowers emerge and open. The stalks are tender, nonwoody, and wonderfully anise flavored at this stage. Once the flowers emerge, the stems become woody.

Wash all your greens and sliver them in fine cross-section. make sure the fennel shoots are cut in fine slices less than a quarter inch thick. Preheat the oven to 350. You will start cooking on the stove, but if you use a Spanish cazuela it can go right into the oven for the second step. Heat the dish and sauté the garlic in olive oil until just cooked but not at all colored. Put in all the greens and the capers and cook, stirring frequently, until the greens are cooked and soft. Taste for salt, but salt it on the light side, since you are going to add feta.

When they just begin to fry in the oil, remove from heat and scatter the red peppers or red chiles around the edges, then put the feta “steaks” in the middle and drizzle olive oil over all.

Bake at least 15 minutes or until the herbs and peppers look all cooked together, probably about 15 minutes. The cheese might color slightly at the edges but won’t brown. If you like it to brown, run under a hot broiler for a minute, taking care not to let the greens burn. Serve with sourdough bread if you can have it, or with a salad alongside.

I am sometimes the target (quite fairly, I might add) of complaints about imprecision. “A double handful,” the precisionists cry, what on earth is that? I reply that it’s the amount you have, and if you don’t have any, you probably have something just as good. I cut my eyeteeth on Elizabeth David recipes with her terse, one-cook-to-another directions, and I hate the mindless insistence of “precisely 1/8 teaspoon” sort of directions.  “But drizzle with olive oil, how much do you mean?” Somewhere I read the story of a new wife being taught a recipe by her Greek mother-in-law, whose directions included “Then close your eyes and pour in olive oil.” That’s how much I mean.

Fennel in the Garden and Kitchen; a Nose-to-Tail Herb

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Fennel carries the true taste of summer. I love fennel and always have it around, and my favorite form, the only variety that I keep these days, is the subtly metallic bronze fennel. If you want fennel bulbs you will have to grow a bulbing type, but my interest is in other parts of the plant so the bronze suits all my purposes.
The first pleasure it offers is aesthetic: this is a lovely plant to have around. The color isn’t really bronze but a soft coppery-purple, and when hung with drops from a summer rain it is nothing short of breathtaking, in a quiet way. When dry, it is furry like a cat until the stalks form, and a little later the umbels of tiny yellow-green blooms look surprisingly pretty against the darker background. It would pass muster as a front yard edible in the most exacting neighborhood.
Second, it is beautifully aromatic. I brush my hand down a frond every time I pass it to inhale the anise-y scent.
Third, it’s delicious. I can’t understand why so few people eat their bronze fennel. I admit that my main use of it is to chew up a frond while weeding or doing other garden tasks. The resiny rush is succeeded by a taste of intense sweetness and herbal licorice. I realized years ago, when going through a Greek cookbook binge, that fennel and not dill is a primary seasoning herb for horta, the greens mixture that forms a part of so many Cretan meals and snacks. A generous handful of chopped fennel fronds, sautéed with other aromatics, gives the right flavor to a batch of greens mixture. Chopped fronds are also an essential part of fish marinades and rubs, in my view, and can be delicious on chicken. A little dab of herb salad, made from chopped bronze fennel and chives or garlic chives and dressed with a very good vinaigrette, is good as a seasoning garnish alongside fish or chicken. Chopped fennel fronds are lovely in mayonnaise to sit atop grilled salmon, or yo dress cold fish salad. When grilling fish, consider putting the larger stems of fennel across the grill to make aromatic smoke. I love a small handful of chopped fronds in salads. This is a nose-to-tail herb, since besides using the leaves and stalks you can collect the pollen if you have enough plants (fennel pollen is a common aromatic seasoning in Tuscany,) and the seeds can also be collected for culinary use. One cookbook writer said that she made an anise-flavored pesto from blanched bronze fennel fronds, and that sounds delicious too, although I haven’t tried it yet. On days when I’ve worked late in the garden and the late sunset finds me hot and dirty and with a poor appetite from the heat, I can throw together smoked salmon crostinis with fennel:

Cut a few diagonal slices off a good baguette or, if you are ketogenic, cut a few thin slices of ketogenic coconut bread. Toast them, spread with green mayo Or your own favorite tarragon-seasoned mayonnaise, put on one thick or two thin slices of smoked wild-caught sockeye salmon, smear with some mascarpone or creme fraiche, and top each with a couple of generous pinches of  chopped fennel. It takes five minutes, it’s cool and soothing, and yum.

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Incidentally, I remember reading somewhere long ago that fennel stalks coated with tallow were burned to summon good witches, and mullein stalks were used the same way to summon bad witches, unless maybe it was the other way around. So if you want to try it, you’ll need to get straight which is which. But I can say from experience that a couple of dried fennel stalks tossed on a dying fire in the fall give a lovely aromatic end to the evening that doesn’t summon anything but contentment and sleep.
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