London 2012 may be remembered for certain sporting events, from Murray’s breakthrough to that rather big event happening down the road in a few weeks. But, right now, the thing that is most extraordinary, and depressing, about it is the weather: the endless, drought-defying floods (when are those f***ers going to stop saying ‘we are still in drought‘ after four months of constant rain?), the sense of loss that more than half the year has gone with nary a sign of sunshine (do I ever get to wear this year’s sandals? Or last year’s for that matter?) and, well, just a longing for that smell of warm skin and suncream that symbolises, even on our rain-soaked island, the freedom of longer days.
The unseasonality is playing havoc with the contents of my fridge: one day I think I might make a watermelon and feta salad and then, whoosh, the skies darken and open and I revert to thoughts of soup. I haven’t, yet, been tempted by soup, whether of the summer variety (too cold) or the usual (too dispiriting) but I’m finding it hard to be inspired by my habitual July fare of salads with a bit of protein thrown in now and again.
However, I have found solace in the art of cooking, or not cooking, with fennel which lends itself to being served both cold and hot, a trait that is not so attractive with other salad ingredients, such as lettuce though, yes, I know there are those that like it grilled. Fennel can be turned into a salad, to make the most of a tiny sliver of sunshine, as I did last night, or baked à la Jane Grigson with butter and Parmesan on those days when you want something that makes you at least think of summer even if it is palpably absent. I highly recommend Grigson’s vegetable book, for its pragmatic and encyclopaedic approach; it will make you look again at everything, whether a humble onion or the downright exotic. Scorzonera anyone? No, me neither…
The salad comes from the first Ottolenghi cookbook and it is easily adapted. The original recipe includes fresh tarragon which I can rarely get hold of so tend to omit. I’m not sure sumac is necessary either, unless you particularly like the colour it adds. You could easily replace it with something else tart, like a teaspoon of lemon zest. And if you can’t get pomegranate seeds, you could use Ottolenghi’s other suggestion, dried sour cherries, chopped into small pieces. Failing that, add a few slices of fresh red bird’s-eye chilli or even crumble over some dried chilli flakes. But the key to this is the combination of a lemony dressing, the aniseed of the fennel, the saltiness of the feta and the bright green of the parsley. Everything else can be dispensed with: it won’t taste exactly the same but it will still be delicious. I have made it loads already this year and, even in the rain, it is brilliantly sunny.
For the cooler days, Jane Grigson’s baked fennel with Parmesan
(I put this first, because I am a pragmatist; I’ve also seen the weather forecast.)
For each person you will need:
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
butter, a good lump
salt and pepper
fennel, ½ to 1 head per person depending on whether this is a side or a main
Parmesan (you’ll need about ½ tablespoon of it grated per head of fennel)
1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan-assisted/gas 6.
2. Put a pan of salted water onto boil.
3. Trim the fennel, cut off any brown/damaged bits and the fronds, then quarter it (or halve the piece if you are only cooking a ½).
4. Cook the fennel in the boiling water until just tender (the timing will depend on the size of the pieces). It should lose its brilliant white crispness but not be completely waterlogged and soft.
5. Whilst the fennel is cooking, butter an ovenproof dish and grate the cheese.
6. Drain the fennel and place it in the ovenproof dish.
7. Generously dot the fennel with butter, season with salt and pepper and cover it with the grated cheese.
8. Bake until golden and the cheese is bubbling. Lovely as a side or just with bread for a quick lunch.
For the warmer days, or as a reminder, Ottolenghi’s fennel and feta salad, adapted from here
For four you will need:
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
salt and black pepper
pomegranate, ½ or a good tablespoonful of seeds from one of those packets
fennel, 2 heads
sumac, 2 tsp plus a pinch to garnish
fresh tarragon, 4 tbsp (I have never used it but bet it’s good with the fennel)
flat-leaf parsley, a large handful (about 2 tablespoons)
1. Make the dressing. Rinse the herbs if necessary then roughly chop the parsley. Zest the lemon (save it for something else or use it for this), then juice it. Mix it in a salad bowl with the olive oil, a little salt and pepper, sumac, the tarragon (if using) and parsley.
2. Trim the fennel, cutting off the fronds (but reserving them) and any brown or damaged bits and the base but keeping the heads intact. Then cut them lengthways, creating long thin slices.
3. Toss the fennel in the dressing. Season to taste, remembering that the feta will add saltiness.
4. Slice the feta lengthways and layer it on top of the fennel.
5. Wear an apron for this bit; pomegranate stains are stubborn. If using ½ a fresh pomegranate, get the seeds out by cutting it in half horizontally (i.e. not through the ‘frilly’ top) then hold it cut-side down over a bowl. Bash the skin gently with a wooden spoon and the seeds should fall out. Remove any pieces of white skin then sprinkle the seeds over the salad.
6. Garnish with fennel fronds and another pinch of sumac.