Monday, 14 April 2008

Ail Nouveau (New Garlic)

It's a truism that markets change with the seasons. In Paris these days, the winter citrus has (finally) departed, to be replaced with artichokes and fresh peas. Both will be with us for some time, giving me ample opportunity to contemplate whether I feel more confident of sucess with the former, and whether I care to veer off the tried-and-true path of a minty soup with the latter. With the more fleeting spring produce such as fresh almonds, nespole (loquat) and gariguettes, there's little room for such indecision. Leave the city for two weekends and they're gone.

But while I consider myself relatively in tune with these comings and goings, I was nonetheless surprised--and, I must admit, charmed--to discover the first of the new garlic a few weeks ago. When I first found it, at the wonderful but achingly slow produce stand outside the covered market, it was tiny and somewhat lumpy, its umbilicus shooting straight into the air. Inside the cloves were crisp and barely formed, many no bigger than my finger. They tasted mild and sweet, almost milky.

Ten days later, when I went back for more, I found that both the bulb and the individual cloves inside had nearly doubled in size. The skin, though still relatively thick and moist, had begun to dehydrate, while the flavour had grown slightly more assertive.

For once, I'm not wasting any time. Fresh garlic is everpresent in my meals these days (breakfast excluded). There have been lovely soups, including a poshed-up leek and potato redolent with garlic and homemade chicken stock, and this fantastic fennel dish. The recipe, which I adapted from Molly Stevens' All About Braising, is a somewhat more elaborate version of an old favourite from one of the early Moro cookbooks. This one uses the same technique of a thorough saute, followed by a long, slow aromatic bath. Here, though, the fennel is matched with garlic, olives, a bit of anchovy and fresh thyme for a taste that is is rich, round and almost silky.
This will be well worth returning to even once the fresh garlic is all dried up, either alongside some grilled fish, as I ate it, or as a part of an antipasti spread including grilled peppers, salumi and some crostini. But for the moment, I've moved onto another new garlic discovery: wild garlic leaves. So if you find yourself sitting on the Paris metro next to a young woman who smells ever so slightly, if not unpleasantly, like a southern Italian nonna fresh out of the kitchen, do be sure to say hello. And for the rest of you, not Paris-bound anytime soon, hints for getting that garlic smell off my hands would be very much appreciated.

Fennel Braised with Thyme and Black Olives
Serves 2
Total time: 90 minutes; Active time: 20 minutes

1 large fennel bulb
scant 1/4 cup of mild but tasty black olives (I used some purpley Kalamatas)
3 cloves fresh garlic (or 1 of the older stuff)
2 anchovy fillets
1 tsp fresh thyme
splash dry white wine or vermouth
1/4-1/3 cup chicken or vegetable stock

Cut off the inedible top piece of the fennel (reserving fronds, if attached), slice a sliver off the bottom and cut bulb into large, long slivers. You'll get 8-12 depending on the size of the bulb. Heat a film of oil on a medium heat in a deep, wide pan (ideally one with a lid) and add as much fennel as fits easily. Saute without disturbing for up to 5 minutes, then turn and repeat until you have lots of carmelised patches and the slices have softened and begun to turn golden. If necessary, remove and repeat with the remaining slices. Salt and pepper each batch.

While you're waiting, pit and half the olives, strip the thyme from its stems, clean the anchovies (if necessary) and chop the garlic. In a small frying pan placed over a low heat, melt the anchovies, thyme and fennel seeds, using a wooden spoon to break up any pieces. Add the wine and boil until reduced by half, about 2 minutes. Spoon any additional cooked fennel back into the main pan, top with olives, the anchovy paste and pour over the stock.

Cover the pan with a lid or foil and bring to a low simmer. Using a diffuser if necessary to control the heat, cook very gently until the fennel has collapsed and gives no resistance to a knife point--at least 1 hour. Adjust seasoning, top with fennel fronds, if using, and serve warm or at room temperature.

I've written this for a Bookmarked Recipes' blogging event. Take a look at other contributor's recipes here.

No comments: