I used to pray that my daughter would sleep through the night, it took a while, 18 months to be exact. Now the problem is, I can no longer sleep through the night. I have periods of hour-long lucidity in the wee hours of the night. Sometimes I stay in bed and fidget, other times I get up and read about food. Last night I woke up at 3 am and couldn’t get back to sleep.
Since I’d been dreaming about that slice of grilled fennel I had at the River Cafe last month, I decided to set about recreating it and making it the star attraction of a warm salad dish. While researching, I noticed that none of the recipes I found suggested briefly simmering the fennel to soften it before getting it in the grill pan. Which is odd, because I’m almost certain that is what they did at the River Cafe.
To me, fennel’s sweet aniseed flavour tends to coat the mouth, making subsequent flavours feel out of kilter (similar to, but not as extreme as, artichokes). I think it benefits from another strong flavour, Serrano ham is perfect bedfellow. I liked the neutral wedge of chewy bread that was served at River Cafe but since my flat is surrounded by Thürmann’s, which I generally try and avoid, I thought laterally and used garlic infused pan fried breadcrumbs, to which I added parsley and capers.
And whenever I see, hear, read or say the word ‘capers’ I think of Fergus Henderson. I’ve eaten at St. John Restaurant, early on when Fergus Henderson had just coined the term “Nose to Tail Eating”, he even did a demo at Leiths and served us deep-fried pigs ears (quite good actually) and pan-fried, bone in, pig’s tails (not so good, plus you had to in delicately gnaw around marble sized pieces of bone and then spit them out). So I bought the book and never cooked anything out of it. But I do so enjoy reading the descriptive paragraphs at the beginning of each recipe. Henderson has the funniest turn of phrase I have ever encountered in a chef-cum-cook book writer. Take for example this excerpt on how many capers to use in the parsley salad that accompanies the roast bone marrow:
“Do you recall eating Sultana Bran for breakfast? The sultana to bran-flake ratio, was always a huge anxiety, to a point, sometimes, that one was tempted to add extra sultanas, which inevitably resulted in too many sultanas, and one lost that pleasure of discovering the occasional sweet chewiness in contrast to the branny crunch. With administering such things as capers it is very good to remember Sultana Bran.”*
Grilled Fennel with Crispy Breadcrumbs and Serrano Ham
(serves 2 as a starter)
1 head of fennel, cut into 1 cm slices through the core
butter, a walnut sized piece
1 clove of garlic, bashed
100g breadcrumbs, coarse
1 tablespoon of parsley, roughly chopped (in Berlin, you can find pre-chopped parsley in the frozen section)
1 tablespoon of capers, roughly chopped
4 slices of Serrano ham, torn into bite sized pieces
squeeze of lemon
1. Place the sliced fennel into a pan, just cover with cold water, add a knob of butter, salt and pepper. Cover with a piece of grease proof paper, bring to a simmer and bubble ever so gently for 10 minutes, until the fennel just yields when poked with a knife.
2. In a small frying pan, pour in a thin-film of olive oil add the garlic and gently warm (no frying) until the garlic becomes aromatic. Increase the heat to medium, add the breadcrumbs and colour slowly, stirring now and again. Add the capers and chopped parsley. Stir and set aside.
3. Heat a grill pan to hot, drain the fennel and pat dry, put the slices down and press them slightly so you hear a sizzle, leave there until you get nice grill marks and turn over.
4. Arrange the grilled fennel on a plate, sprinkle with some salt and pepper. Cover the fennel with breadcrumbs, lay the Serrano ham slices around the fennel. (I added a few olives as well)
5. Drizzle the whole thing with some good quality olive oil and just a tiny squirt of lemon. Eat warm.
* Quote is taken directly from Nose to Tail Eating by Fergus Henderson.