Fennel is a new addition to my local farmers market. That’s the great thing about the rise of these local markets. Customers ask, farmers grow. Last year, it was a few experimental bulbs, this year it’s big bins of them. When I saw them last year, I was quick to pick up as many as I could and start experimenting. I love adding fennel to the vegetables that start a soup or casserole or sauce – a bit in with the carrots, celery and onion. It adds an interesting undernote. But I had never really ventured into featuring fennel as a main ingredient until I found it tender and fresh and fragrant on the farmstand.
I have had a roasted fennel gratin at a restaurant that was basically wedges of fennel tossed in olive oil with a shower of breadcrumbs. Not interesting enough for me. The recipes I looked at were mostly similar and the ones with cream sauce seemed to have a lot of cream sauce – the fennel would be swimming. So I fiddled around for what I was imagining. When I have the freshest fennel, I want to highlight its unique flavor, so I ignored recipes that had additions of mustard, onion, garlic and shallot. I want the bracing flavor of fennel to really shine. A touch of the acid tang of white wine complements the fennel and a slight dusting with salty Parmesan rounds it out. Cooking mellows the fennel, rendering it sweeter but still with that special flavor.
This dish is lovely. I’ve eaten it on its own with a chunk of bread, but it pairs so well with a grilled steak or a delicate piece of fish. The smell of sliced fresh fennel is spectacular.
Creamy Fennel Gratin
I prefer the Parmesan and breadcrumbs to be very fine, like a light dust on top of the gratin. I grate day-old bread on a fine grater.
6 cups thinly sliced fennel (see note)
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon flour
½ cup white wine
1 cup heavy cream
2 Tablespoons chopped fennel frond (the feathery leaves)
¼ cup finely grated parmesan cheese
¼ cup fresh, finely grated bread crumbs
salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter an 8 by 8 inch baking dish
Cut the thick stalks and fronds form the fennel bulbs and remove the tough end and any tough, blemished outer leaves. Slice the fennel bulb thinly using a mandolin or the food processor, about 1/8 inch thick.
Melt the butter in a saucepan large enough to hold the sliced fennel. Whisk in the flour until you have a smooth, pale paste. Pour in the wine and heavy cream (measure them together in the same jug) and whisk until the sauce begins to thicken. Stir in one Tablespoon of the chopped fennel frond and cook until the sauce is thick and coats the back of the spoon. Stir in the sliced fennel and a few generous pinches of salt and stir to coat. Scrape the fennel into the prepared baking dish and spread it out into an even layer.
Mix the breadcrumbs, parmesan and remaining chopped fennel fron together. Sprinkle evenly over the top of the gratin. Bake the gratin for 30 – 40 minutes until a knife slides easily into a piece of the fennel. Serve hot.
Serves 4 – 6
Note: I created this recipe to make the most of fresh, young tender fennel. I use about 6 bulbs that are pale green and about 4 inches across. If you use the mature, white fennel common at grocery stores, you will probably need about 3 bulbs. The young fennel can be sliced right through, but the larger white bulbs need to be halved and the triangular hard core cut out. The large bulbs may need a longer cooking time as well.
The first spring weekend of farmers market season is exciting. I am ready for all that fresh produce with a new treat arriving each week and little surprises on every visit. I know that I am closer to juicy strawberries, my first tomato in months, bright, sweet corn and so many things. I know it is all about to start. But in reality, that first Saturday is a little sparse. The greens lingering from winter, a few spring flowers, but not the spectacular array soon to come. S on the first market day this year, I came away mostly with baked goods and a restock on pastured meat. Not a huge haul, but still a fun trip.
As I unpacked my oilcloth market bag at home, I took stock of my purchases and realized I had leeks, bacon, eggs and goat cheese. Flamiche! In the fridge I had some local milk and cream, and with a quickly made piecrust, I was ready for a very elegant, locally sourced spring lunch.
This quiche-like tart is a traditional Belgian dish, with the old-world flavors of smoky bacon, salty goat cheese and jammy leeks. When I buy leeks fresh from the farmer, there are sometimes a few very thin pencil leeks in the bunch. I like to press them into the top of the filling before baking, because it is such a lovely presentation. You can slice right through them or pull them off before serving. I like the look of my square tart pan, but round is beautiful too.
Belgian Leek, Goat Cheese and Bacon Tart
If you buy your leeks from a farmers market and they are thinner than grocery store varieties, you will need more.
1 pie crust for a 9-inch pie
2 large leeks or 3 medium (4 cups sliced), white and pale green parts only
¼ cup butter
½ cup water
8 strips of bacon
5 ounces soft goat cheese, crumbled
½ cup whole milk
½ cup heavy cream
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
Fit the prepared crust into a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.
Slice the white and pale green part of the leeks in half lengthwise, then slice each half into thin half circles. Place the leeks in a large bowl of cold water and swirl around with your hands, shuffling to separate the layers of leek. Leave for a few minutes to let any dirt settle to the bottom of a bowl. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium low heat. Scoop the leeks out of the water and shake to drain somewhat (do not pour the leeks and water into a strainer, the dirt will just fall back on the leeks) then add to the melted butter. Stir to coat and then stir in the ½ cup water. Cook for a few minutes, until the leeks begin to reduce in bulk, then cover, lower the heat to low and cook for 20- 25 minutes until the leeks are soft and semi-translucent. Stir occasionally during cooking and add a drop or two more water as needed. Do not let the leeks brown. When the leeks are soft and pale, uncover and cook a few minutes more until any liquid has evaporated. Set aside to cool. (The leeks can be made up to two days ahead and refrigerated, tightly covered, until ready to use).
While the leeks are cooling, cook the bacon until crisp and drain on paper towels. Preheat the oven to 400°. Spread the cooled leeks evenly over the bottom of the prepared tart crust, smoothing the top. Crumble the goat cheese and sprinkle over the top of the leeks. Chop the bacon into small pieces and sprinkle in the tart. In a small bowl or 4 cup measuring jug, whisk together the milk, cream, whole egg, yolk and pepper. Pour this custard over the filling in the tart. Carefully transfer to the oven and bake for 20 – 25 minutes or until the center is set and the top is golden brown.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
Melty cheese and crispy bread are the perfect pairing for soup, creamy or brothy. And this may be the ultimate soup sidecar. If you are fan of the classic croque monsieur, this is basically just the top. A creamy, cheesy béchamel sauce browned until bubbly on a good piece of bread. I like it plain, but feel free to alter it to suit your soup – before you melt in the cheese add finely chopped green onions, a dash of cayenne, a dollop of mustard, lots of cracked black pepper. The topping will keep covered in the fridge for two days, giving you a weekend of special soup meals,
Fontina Cheese Toasties
2 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons flour
1 ¼ cup milk
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup grated fontina cheese
8 thick slices country bread, like ciabatta or boule
Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon
Melt the butter in a saucepan, then whisk in the flour. Continue whisking until it is smooth and pale, almost white. Slowly whisk in the milk and cook over medium-high heat until the sauce is thick and smooth. Whisk in the nutmeg. Whisk in the cheese, a bit at a time, stirring until melted before adding more cheese.
Chill the mixture in the refrigerator until it has firmed up. The topping will keep covered in the fridge for two days.
Preheat the broiler in your oven. Place the sliced bread on a cookie sheet lined with parchment or non-stick foil. Lightly toast the bread on one side, then remove it from the oven and spread a generous amount of the cheese sauce on the untoasted side. Make a nice thick layer, spread to the edges. Sprinkle a pinch of flaky salt over the toasties, then place under the broiler. Broil until the cheese is bubbly and lightly browned in spots, about 5 minutes. Watch very carefully and remove as soon as the brown spots appear.
Let the toasties cool for a minute, then serve them with a nice bowl of soup.
Makes 8 toasties, perfect to accompany 4 bowls of soup
This recipe was born from my love for chestnuts, and my overzealous purchase of them before Thanksgiving. I include chestnuts in my dressing, and when I see them on the shelves, I go a little nuts and always buy more than I need. So after that holiday madness dies down, I find ways to use them in other recipes. And by that point I have heard “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” on the radio at least once. This dish doesn’t take long to prepare, but makes an elegant, unique meal break during this crazy season. Time to take breath and enjoy time together.
Chestnuts are nutty and slightly sweet and pair beautifully with woodsy sage and salty pancetta. I readily find packages of pre-diced pancetta at markets, but if you don’t, go to the deli counter and ask them to give you a couple of thick slices and dice those into bits. Thin sliced pancetta does not work as well. In the photos, I used a short, twisted pasta labeled “torcetti”, but any short, thick pasta will work, like fusilli or casarecce. Orecchiette would work as well. The chunks of pancetta and chestnut get lost in long pastas. And I will admit, this is enough pasta to serve 4 people with a salad and some nice bread, but for big eaters, it may only serve 2!
Pasta with Chestnuts, Pancetta and Sage
10 ounces dried pasta
4 ounces diced pancetta
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage, plus several large leaves
4 ounces roasted chestnuts, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup white wine
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water, according to package instructions. Drain the pasta in a colander.
While the pasta is cooking, sauté the pancetta in a sauté pan, large enough to hold the pasta, over medium heat until it is cooked through and crispy. Use a slotted spoon to remove the pancetta to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Drop a few sage leaves into the hot drippings and fry until deep green then remove to the paper towels. (This helps flavor the sauce, and the fried leaves are a wonderful garnish). Drop the chopped chestnuts into the drippings and sauté until they are a deep tan color, smell nice and nutty and start to crisp up, about 5 minutes. Remove with the slotted spoon to the paper towels. Turn the heat off under the pan and let the drippings cool for a minute. Drop the garlic in the pan for just a minute (don’t let it burn or turn dark), then pour in the wine. Turn the heat on high and bring the wine to a boil. Sprinkle in about ¾ of the Tablespoon of the chopped sage. Cook until the wine is reduced by half and is thickened and syrupy, about 5 minutes. Add the cream, lower the heat to medium and simmer until heated through and slightly thickened.
Add the drained pasta to the sauce in the pan and toss to coat, stir in the pancetta, chestnuts and remaining chopped fresh sage. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, with parmesan cheese grated over the top.
Serves 4 (or two if you are really hungry)
When the weather turns chilly, it may seem that the time for cold salads has past. But this lovely, homey lentil salad is perfect for fall. The ingredients for this could not be humbler, but somehow the whole comes off as sophisticated. This is the kind of dish I imagine a French home cook would whip up if you just dropped by unexpectedly.
This salad is great beside a grilled piece of pork or a roasted chicken. It makes a great lunch with a piece of crusty bread, and can easily be packed to take to the office or a picnic. For company, I toss the nuts, herbs and cheese in right before serving, but the leftovers, or a fresh batch just for you, are great sitting in the fridge for a few days as you snack out of the bowl.
Walnut oil can be a bit pricey, but it is a wonderful treat to give salads and dressings a nutty zing. Something about it adds to the French-ness of this salad. You can use olive oil, either as half the oil or all of it. French green lentils, or lentils de puy, are the perfect for salads because they cook up tender but still retain their shape. These lentils used to be only found at gourmet shops or mail-order, but I have finally shared this recipe because I now find them regularly in the organic grains aisle at my large grocery store.
French Lentil Salad with Walnuts and Goat Cheese
6 cups chicken broth
1 celery stalk
2 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
2 ½ cups petite green lentils (such as Bob’s Red Mill)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
½ cup walnut oil
Salt and pepper
1 cup chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
4 ½ ounces goat cheese, crumbled
Pour the chicken broth into a large pot. Cut the celery and carrots into large chunks and add to the broth with the peeled garlic cloves and bay leaves. Bring to a boil and add the lentils, stirring well. Boil the lentils for 3 minutes, skimming off any green scum that rises. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 25 – 30 minutes until the lentils are tender, but still hold their shape.
While the lentils are cooking, place the garlic, vinegar and mustard in a blender and food processor and blend until smooth. Add a good pinch of salt and generous grinds of black pepper. Drizzle in the oil with the motor running until you have a creamy dressing.
When the lentils are done, drain away any remaining liquid and discard the carrot, celery, garlic and bay leaves (It’s best to do this is in a fine strainer, these lentils are small). Transfer the lentils to a bowl, then pour the dressing over the warm lentils, tossing gently to fully coat. Cool slightly, then cover the bowl and refrigerate the lentils for 8 hours or overnight.
When ready to serve, lightly toast the walnuts in a dry skillet until they are just brown and smell toasty. Toss the walnuts, parsley and crumbled goat cheese with the lentils. Taste and season with more salt and pepper as needed.
Serves 8 – 10
When the reality of the new school year and the end of summer hit, having a quick, portable breakfast on hand can be a serious boon. And these muffins fit the bill. I often find muffins labeled “healthy” to be leaden gut bombs, but these are light and tender, thanks to the magic of buttermilk. Oats provide a nice, sustained energy level and soaking them in the buttermilk prevents that chewy, gritty texture you sometimes find in baked goods with oatmeal. These are not excessively sweet muffins, so no sugar crash, and the applesauce keeps the flavor up and the fat content down.
But the real beauty of these muffins is their versatility. While delicious straight up, the recipe below is really the blueprint for your own creativity. When you stir in the applesauce*, add your favorite dried fruit and/or nut combo, and any spice that tickles your fancy. Try ½ cup dried cranberries and ½ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice. Or make that ¼ cup cranberries and ¼ cup chopped walnuts. Or raisins and cinnamon. Blueberries and nutmeg. Pecans and apple pie spice. I often scoop half a batch of plain batter to the tin, then add my additions to the second half. These muffins are delicious fresh, but will last for three days in an airtight container. When they are completely cooled, wrap each one individually in plastic wrap and pop into the freezer in a zipper bag. Just pull one out the night before and you are ready to go.
And one note on the yield. I have been fiddling with this recipe for years, and I simply lack the mathematical skills to make it an even dozen. If the anomaly truly bothers you, divide the batter between all 12 cups and you’ll get smaller muffins.
Oatmeal Get-Up-And-Go Muffins
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup low-fat buttermilk
½ cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup unsweetened apple sauce
Place the oats in a large bowl and pour over the buttermilk. Stir gently with a spoon to cover the oats, then leave to sit for one hour.
Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease 10 cups of a muffin pan.
Stir the egg and brown sugar into the oat mixture until combined. Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt and stir until just barely mixed. Add the applesauce (and any add-ins*) and stir until just combined. Don’t’ stir too hard or too long or the muffins will be tough.
Scoop the batter into the muffin cups (I use a large cookie scoop). Bake for 12 – 15 minutes until a tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool in the pan for a few minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
Yields 10 – 11 muffins
My favorite simple fall salad dressing was created quite unexpectedly. I was given a fancy bottle of white balsamic vinegar infused with pear. That’s what it said on the label, but I never tasted any hint of pear. It sat in my pantry for a while, unused. But at some point, I was asked to bring a salad to a dinner, and had purchased a pear to cut up on top. My forward planning got the better of me and the pear ripened so much waiting for its star turn that it was too soft to cut into nice chunks. Scanning the pantry to try and rescue my salad, I saw that fancy vinegar and thought maybe I could use it and the soft pear to dress the salad. This vinaigrette was the result, and it has become a firm family favorite.
This is particularly good on dark leafy spinach, and I love to add to the fall flavor by tossing the salad with dried cranberries and toasted walnuts, a little blue cheese, and if you have fresh pear, some nice juicy chunks. And this is a great way to use up that last pitiful, lonely soft pear left in the fruit bowl. Oh, and if you happen to have a bottle of pear-infused white balsamic, feel free to use it.
Fresh Pear Vinaigrette
Walnut oil adds a nice depth and nuttiness, but if you don’t have any, use all olive oil.
1 large ripe pear, peeled and cored
Juice of one small lemon
1 Tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ cup white wine or white balsamic vinegar
¼ cup walnut oil
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Cut the pear into chunks and drop in the carafe of a blender with the lemon juice. Purée, then add the sugar, salt and pepper. Add the vinegar and blend well. With the blender running, drizzle in the oils until you have a nice, thick emulsified dressing.
The dressing can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 8 hours. Shake well before using.
Makes ¾ cups
We are in the transitional season. Not quite full on fall, but summer vacation is definitely over. This is a nice, hearty pasta with flavors that bridge that gap between summer and fall. Stone ground mustard provides a nice tang and texture, but the hit of the bright yellow version deepens the mustard flavor. The honey adds a subtle sweetness that pairs well with the meaty kielbasa. And I love the little scoops of orecchiette because they cradle the sauce, sweet onions and chunky sausage in their hollows, creating perfectly balanced bites, but you could certainly use ziti or fusilli or a pasta of your choice.
Kielbasa Pasta with Honey Mustard Sauce
1 pound kielbasa
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
¾ pound orecchiette pasta
3 Tablespoons butter, divided
2 Tablespoons flour
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup milk
2 Tablespoons stone ground mustard
1 Tablespoon yellow mustard
2 Tablespoons honey
Salt and pepper to taste
Chop the kielbasa into bite sized cubes. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat and cook the kielbasa until browned and cooked through. I like to use a large pan that will fit the pasta when it is cooked. Transfer the kielbasa to paper towels to drain.
Cook the orecchiette in a large pot of well-salted water according to package instructions until al dente. Drain and toss with one Tablespoon of the butter to prevent sticking.
Add the chopped onions to the oil and fat in the pan and stir to coat. When the onions begin to soften, add 1 cup of water, cover the pan and simmer until the onions are soft and caramelized, about 15 minutes. Stir often to prevent sticking and add more water as needed. When the onions are a nice toffee brown, uncover the pot and simmer until the liquid is evaporated. Stir the onions into the cooked pasta.
Melt the remaining two Tablespoons butter in the sauté pan. Whisk in the flour until smooth. Slowly add the broth and milk, whisking constantly until thick and creamy. Stir in the mustards and honey and season well with salt and pepper. Simmer the sauce for about 5 minutes until thick and hot through.
Stir the pasta, onions and kielbasa together and add to the sauce. Stir to coat thoroughly and cook over medium low until heated through. Taste for seasoning and adjust.
Serves 4 – 6
Pink and pretty and refreshing. Okay, a little girly. But this lovely summer sipper will cool you off with a little sophistication. The pink wine available in the US has come a long way from “white zin” and the eighties wine bar, and I urge you to seek it out. It is a crisp summer wine and there are great, affordable versions from France like La Vieille Ferme and South Africa such as Mulderbosch.
I like the attractive little balls of melon, but if that’s more work than you are willing to do, cut the melons into small cubes.
Melon Rosé Sangria
½ cup sugar
4 sprigs of mint
2 cups fresh melon balls (watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe), juices reserved (plus more for garnish)
¼ cup elderflower liqueur (such as St. Germain)
1 750 ml bottle rosé wine
2 cups lemon-lime soda
Bring the water and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, remove from the heat and drop in the mint leaves. Leave to cool.
Place the melon balls and reserved juice in a large pitcher. Pour over the liqueur and leave to sit for about 15 minutes. Add the rosé and mint simple syrup and gently stir. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Before serving, add the soda and gently stir. Serve over lots of ice with a sprig of mint and a few melon balls in each glass.
Serves 6- 8
Classic zucchini bread is a summer staple for anyone who has a garden or frequents the farmers market. I always seem to have one extra zucchini lying around. But I find the typical spiced zucchini bread recipe, though delicious, a little heavy in summer, so I adapted a classic English lemon drizzle bread recipe to include zucchini in cute little mini-bite form. These little gems have the summery fresh taste of zucchini and mint nicely balanced with lemon zest and juice. The muffins themselves are not too sweet, but the zippy, sugary glaze adds a nice touch. Using granulated sugar gives the glaze a little crunch. I grate the zucchini, with the peel intact, on the fine holes of a box grater – thickly grated zucchini turns out too stringy and overpowers the light taste.
Zucchini Lemon Gems
For the muffins:
1/2 cup canola oil
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
Zest of 1 lemon
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
1 Tablespoon fresh chopped mint leaves
1 cup grated zucchini (about 1 medium zucchini)
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
For the glaze:
3 Tablespoons lemon juice
5 Tablespoons granulated sugar
Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease 30 mini-muffin cups.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs then stir in the oil, sugar and buttermilk until well blended. Add the lemon juice and zest, the zucchini and chopped mint. Stir until blended. Add the flour, baking powder and salt and stir until just blended, with no streaks of flour left.
Spoon the batter into muffin tins, filling them almost full. I think these are cute with a little overflow, and that creates more surface for the sweet sugar glaze. Bake for 10 – 12 minutes until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
While the muffins are cooking, mix the sugar and lemon juice for the glaze in a small bowl. The sugar should not dissolve completely.
Leave the muffins to cool in the tin for a few minutes, then remove to a wire rack set over paper or foil to catch drips. Stir the glaze to blend, then spoon it over the muffins while they are still hot. Cool the muffins and enjoy!
Makes 30 mini-muffins