Why do all the supermarkets not stock this superb vegetable? It’s so versatile: raw, roasted, braised, chargrilled, sautéed, pureed… there’s so many ways to eat it. Some people dislike the strong aniseed of fennel but they obviously haven’t tried when it’s cooked and becomes beautifully caramelised and sweet.
Fennel has a happy marriage with fish; the aniseed notes enhancing the fishy flavour, whether that’s smoked mackerel or some delicate lemon sole. They’re just right for each other, like lamb and mint or beef and horseradish. I can’t imagine a fish soup (with a generous glug of Pernod too) or fish en papilotte, without some fennel playing a secondary role.
When raw, it’s crisp and clean with a pronounced aniseed flavour and is delicious in salads. A fennel, blood orange and olive salad is a wonderful thing. It’s worth the potential loss of fingertips by using a mandolin to get ultra thin shavings. Don’t forget to save the delicate looking fronds for garnish, which look really pretty and give an extra fennel hit.
Give this wondrous bulb some heat and it is transformed into something soft, mellow and sweet; the liquorice is more rounded and toffee-like. Juicy roast chicken on a bed of onions, fennel and lemon slices; creamy fennel soup topped with a crispy skinned piece of fish, chargrilled fennel with tomatoes in a herb dressing… Where are those fennel doubters now?
In this recipe, I slowly sauté fennel till golden and soft, then bake inside a buttery rosemary spelt pastry crust with a filling of Burford Brown eggs, crème fraiche and parmesan. Hence why the tart looks so orange! The eggs have the most amazing rich yolks. Health food this is not, but once you bite into this tasty tart, any thoughts of its virtuous failings soon go out of the window. Serve the tart slightly warm (but really good at room temperature too) for a delicious lunch or a light dinner served with a crisp green salad.
90g plain flour
90g light spelt flour
90g unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
1 tbsp finely chopped rosemary
3-4 tbsp cold water
2 fennel bulbs, cut into 5-6 vertical slices
Glug of rapeseed oil
3 Burford Brown or any free range eggs
150ml crème fraiche
15g grated parmesan
- Preheat oven to 200C and pop an oven tray in to heat.
- To make the pastry, put the flours, chilled butter and rosemary in a food processor and whizz until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add just enough cold water to bring the pastry together.
- Wrap the pastry in cling film and chill for 30 minutes. This allows the gluten in the flour to ‘relax’ and it will make it easier to roll out and also prevent shrinkage when you bake it.
- Dust a little flour on the work surface and onto your rolling pin. Roll out the pastry, while turning the dough 45 degrees as you roll, and line a 9-inch tart tin.
- Gently press the pastry into the edges of the tin with your fingers, prick with a fork to prevent it rising and line with baking paper and beans. Put the tart directly onto the hot tray and blind bake for 10 minutes. Remove the paper and beans then bake for another 10 minutes till lightly golden and sandy in texture. Turn the oven down to 180C or 160C fan.
- Meanwhile, heat the oil in two large frying pans and gently sauté the fennel with a pinch of salt for about 15 minutes on both sides till golden and cooked through.
- Whisk the eggs, crème fraiche and parmesan in a large jug with a generous pinch of salt and pepper till combined.
- Add one layer of fennel into the tart base followed by two thirds of the egg mixture. Place the rest of the fennel on top and pour the remaining egg mixture around it.
- Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes till the filling is just set. Allow the tart to cool for at least 15 minutes before serving with the reserved fennel fronds.