Coming from a long line of farmers, for me, fruits and vegetables were always something picked straight from the tree or from the ground, at just the right moment, everything in its season, everything in its time. I would roam my grandfather’s orchard with great anticipation, surrounded by the trees with their fragrant white blossoms, watching out for the first budding fruits and eyeing their progress as they grew rounder and thicker in fluorescent shades of orange and yellow.
The elongated Shamouti [Jaffa] oranges were cut open into tart sections; the round Valencia oranges took longer to ripen and were squeezed for juice; grapefruits were split in half and given a little boost of sugar before being dug into with a spoon. When my grandfather planted row upon row of thin-peeled, sweet-fleshed Michal tangerines, I was tempted to believe that they were really named after me.
Hass and Ettinger avocados were picked from the trees in the grove, ripened gradually and were eaten with a spoon with a squeeze of juice from a lemon just picked from the orchard. Peanut plants were plucked from the field with their leaves and roots attached and the peanuts picked one by one. Cleaned of bits of mud, the pink-shelled nuts were so fresh and slightly sweet that no roasting was necessary.
There’s nothing like the taste of fresh-picked fruits and vegetables, picked at just the right time, that haven’t spent time sitting in packing houses or refrigerator storage. Anyone who has ever cooked with produce that is the freshest of the fresh knows what wonders it can do for the way dishes are put together and presented. Bold, essential flavors and maximum freshness allow for clean tastes, minimal seasoning and delightful play with colors and textures.
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My cooking relies in large part on agricultural produce, both vegetable and animal (a separate discussion whose time will come), as fresh as I can get my hands on – from growing it myself, from visiting farmers’ markets or buying directly from farms and other small growers and producers (which is becoming increasingly available even to total city slickers). From this produce, each thing in its time and season, will grow the recipes that I’ll choose to share here each week.
This week it’s fennel. A fleshy tuber of pale layers with a marvelously delicate anise flavor. I like my fennel bulbs plump and round, crisp and glossy, still crowned with their feathery green fronds. Not a lot of people make use of the fennel fronds, and that’s a shame. Given the chance, they’ll add flavor, color and freshness to salads, soups and stews. Fennel is at its peak after the rain, when it’s at its most juicy.
Shrimp with fennel and tomatoes
Fennel and tomato make a charming pair, tanginess and sweetness, softness and crispness. They boost and complement one another. The anise flavor of the fennel blends well with all kinds of sea creatures. The shrimp in this recipe could be replaced with either whole calamari or calamari rings, or filleted and boneless saltwater fish. Any of these will be added to the fennel and tomato mixture near the end to cook for just a very short time. The fennel and tomato mixture may be prepared ahead of time with the seafood or fish cooked in it just before serving.
10-12 cleaned crystal shrimp, without the heads, with the skin
2 plump fennel bulbs, halved lengthwise and then sliced thinly
A handful of fennel fronds separated from the stalk (or cilantro, or omit)
5 medium-sized ripe red tomatoes, blanched in boiling water, peeled and cubed
1 garlic clove, sliced thin
1 hot green pepper, halved lengthwise and sliced thin (optional)
4 tbsp olive oil
2-3 tbsp arak
Heat the olive oil in a wide skillet over a high flame. Add the sliced fennel and fry while stirring for five minutes or until the fennel begins to soften but not turn brown.
Add the hot pepper and garlic, stir and continue frying while stirring for two minutes, until the pepper brightens in color and the aroma of garlic wafts from the skillet.
Add the chopped tomatoes with their juice, season with salt, stir and simmer until the tomatoes turn to sauce and color the fennel red.
Add the arak, stir and simmer for two more minutes, until the alcohol evaporates and leaves a pleasing anise-like aroma.
Scatter the shrimp in the skillet and cover them with the tomato and fennel mixture. Let simmer for two minutes, then turn them over and cover them again, so they cook on both sides. When the shrimp have a bold red color they are ready. Don’t be tempted to cook them any longer. The only way to ruin shrimp (and other seafood) is by overcooking. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed. If you have fennel fronds, sprinkle a bunch over the stew.
A refreshing fennel, apple and tarragon salad
Fresh young fennel that is firm and crisp needs few additions to become a refreshing salad that makes a welcome accompaniment to heavy wintry dishes. As befits a winter vegetable, fennel enjoys the company of citrus juice and slices. Red apples such as the Sundowner and Pink Lady and the like – the slightly tart apples of early winter – will add crispness and a little blush. Tarragon adds another layer of anise flavor. (Fennel fronds may be substituted if available.)
2 nice plump fennels, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 very fresh tart red apple, cut around the core into two round “cheeks” and two side sections, then all thinly sliced
½ of a not-too-large red onion, halved lengthwise and then thinly sliced
Juice and zest of ½ of a fresh juicy lemon
A bunch of tarragon leaves, separated from the stem
In a large bowl, combine the slices of fennel, onion and apple. Add the lemon zest and lemon juice, a generous amount of olive oil, and salt. Stir, taste and adjust seasonings.
Add tarragon or fennel fronds and stir. Serve immediately.
Pasta with roasted fennel, lemon and chili pepper
I like my pasta seasoned with flavors but not swimming in sauce. Pan-roasting the fennel with lemon, olive oil, chili pepper and garlic yields strong flavors that add up to more than the sum of their parts and the delicious cooking juices are also mixed with the pasta.
½ package (250 grams) long pasta
2 nice plump fennels, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
If possible, a bunch of fennel fronds separated from the stalk
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1-2 fresh red chili peppers, thinly sliced (or coarsely ground dried chili pepper)
Juice and zest of one fresh and juicy lemon
1/3 cup olive oil + a little more for drizzling on the pasta
Grated parmesan to serve with the pasta
Preheat the oven to 220 degrees Celsius.
Boil a pot of water to cook the pasta in.
In a pan that’s not too big, combine the fennel, fennel fronds, garlic, chili pepper, lemon juice and zest, salt and olive oil. Place a piece of baking paper cut to the size of the pan atop the fennel, cover with tin foil and roast in the hot oven for 20 minutes. Remove the tin foil and roast for 10 more minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package. Try to time it so that the pasta and fennel finish cooking at the same time.
Drain the pasta, drizzle it with olive oil and stir to coat. Combine the pasta with the roast fennel mixture. Divide into serving bowls, grate a little parmesan on top and serve immediately.