Breadcrumbed Grilled Fennel with Serrano Ham

I tell you, the irony…

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.

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Spaghetti al crudo

I am already missing the Guardian’s food supplements.  Luckily I got my fix for the month when my very thoughtful sister-in-law sent me the Summer Recipes: Seafood supplement by post.  It kind of made me feel all warm inside to see the buxom Nigella Lawson on the cover.  I haven’t really managed to read through it-but a quick flip through with little L tugging my dress, and I quickly saw a recipe I wanted to try!

It’s called  Spaghetti al crudo and is submitted by Giorgio Locatelli.  It’s a little bit like a tame Puttanesca (in that it’s uses the same ingredients minus the garlic, chili and is raw).  It’s full of things people who don’t like food don’t like, namely capers, olives and “ewwwwww” anchovies.  My taste buds think it’s a marriage made in heaven.  You have sweet tomatoes, meaty anchovies, salty olives and perky briny capers.  Then a healthy helping of basil to make the whole thing a little more elegant. 

Giorgio recommends that you dish out some money on the pasta for this recipe.  Why spring for more expensive pasta?  It’s just flour and water right?  Yes, sure but it’s all in the making you see…  In the pricey stuff, they use copper molds (which are expensive and wear down faster) which make the spaghetti surface imperfect.  This imperfection is the key to you slurping up every last one of those noodles because it helps the sauce cling to the strand.  The spaghetti is also allowed to air dry rather than being heated quickly and artificially.  Not convinced?  Give it a shot once and see.  

Spaghetti al crudo – serves 1 greedy person – ME!

1 tbsp capers (baby ones, if possible)

2 tbsp black olives, pitted (I urge you not to throw them in whole, because then you will never get the perfect mouthful, instead you will be to busy extracting the pits.  It is tedious but just trust me when I tell you it’s worth it.)

3 anchovy fillets, finely chopped

1 large tomato (the best quality you can find), finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

150g spaghetti

1/4  bunch basil

glug of extra-virgin olive oil

Parmesan

Method:

1. Put all the ingredients except the spaghetti, basil and half of the oil in a sauté pan and mix together, but don’t heat. Taste and season.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil add salt, drop in the pasta. Now this is important, before you drain the pasta, take out half a cup of salty, starchy cooking water and put it to one side.  I saw this in Genoa and have been doing it ever since.  It ensures that you can serve pasta that is deliciously moist and does not stick together.  

3. While the pasta is cooking, put the sauté pan containing the ingredients for the sauce over the top of the pasta pan, so the steam just warms everything up a little and the flavours start to infuse (Giorgio’s idea, not mine – I actually didn’t do this).

4. Remove the pasta a whole minute before the packet tells you to.  It will absorb a little more liquid from the sauce and continue cooking.  

5. When the pasta is cooked but still al dente, drain. Add the pasta to the sauté pan and toss through, adding a little of the cooking water to loosen. Add the rest of the oil (I say at least two tablespoons!) and toss through again. Tear the basil leaves, scatter over and toss through again.  Add some shaved Parmesan and serve straight away.

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