Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Our Stop & Shop had fennel (often wrongly labeled "anise") on sale, and I bought a couple bulbs a few days ago to base a weekday supper on. These meals are almost always one-dish affairs, and last night I began to match up some other ingredients: leeks (they had also looked good), and celery (now that I had fennel and leeks, I was being drawn to something where texture was nudging texture, and green was being laid on green).
Still, I didn't feel I had a dish yet, just a tasty-seeming combination of vegetables. It was time to pick a starch. Because I was thinking about texture, I decided to go with pasta, a short one (gemelli), instead of rice or potatoes. Now we had slippery and chewy (the pasta), slippery and luscious (fennel), slippery and slightly crunchy (celery), and just plain slippery (the leeks).
This could have stayed a strictly vegetarian dish, but these vegetables are mostly fibrous packages of water, so I thought about a meat. It would have to be a meat that didn't throw its weight around, because I wanted the fennel to be the star. Turkey came to mind, dark meat from the thigh or leg. Fennel and turkey: I could taste the two together, and they tasted good.
Since leeks and celery are both aromatics, I didn't think the dish needed any herbs, apart from some fresh parsley, which I had on hand and couldn't hurt. But I did want something that would add some savor, a subtle bit of tang, so I decided to add a thick slice of lemon to the vegetables while they were cooking, and otherwise see what thoughts came up while I was doing the prep.
So, on the cutting board: two fennel bulbs, two leeks, three celery stalks, a clove of garlic, some parsley, and two turkey legs. Fennel bulb, cooked just right, is succulent and delicately flavored. However, the stalks that shoot up out of it — looking not unlike celery — are tough and anise-y. A lot of cookbooks say to use the fennel fronds, which look like dill, as a pot herb. I'm big on waste not, want not, but I draw the line at these. Frankly, they're garbage.*
The stalks The stalks, though, are in the gray zone. Ideally, they should be tossed out, too. But they make up a bit too much of the total purchase, so I struggle with them. They're tough and they take forever to cook, unlike the bulb, which is tender enough to eat raw. This time around I cut the stalks into 2-inch lengths, and slice these into strips. These get stuffed into a ziplock bag and are tossed into the microwave for 12 minutes of radiation treatment at full power. They come out tender and edible. There are a lot of things in the vegetable world like this—mushroom stalks, for instance. You wouldn't ever choose them but you get stuck with them, so you do your best to teach them to sit up and beg.
Some people wash cut up leeks in cold water because of the dirt that can get into them, but I find this leaches out a lot of flavor. So, just wash them whole, trim off the root end, then cut off the green tops. The white tubular part I cut in half lengthwise and flip through the layers looking for silt. Usually there isn't any, but if I come across it I just rinse that out. Then I cut the two halves into 1-inch lengths and there you are. I strip away the though dark green parts from the tops until I get down to the lighter-colored, tender core, and treat that the same way. The green tops are more likely to be silty, but it's easy to rinse the dirt away. That takes care of the leeks. The celery I just chop up into bite-size pieces.
I pour about two tablespoons of olive oil into our Calphalon Dutch oven, along with a teaspoon of kosher salt, and set the flame under the pot to medium low. When I can smell the hot oil, I add the chopped up vegetables, minus the fennel stems, which are already done to a turn. Here's a photo of everything, including the lemon slice. Only the garlic and the parsley have been left behind.
Once this impromptu stock is simmering, it's time to cook the gemelli, the cooking water for which has already come to a boil. That takes about 20 minutes, and the idea is that it will be al dente just as the pieces of fennel bulb become succulent and the leeks turn meltingly tender (the celery should still have a touch of crispness).
Twenty minutes gives me plenty of time to cook the turkey. I take down our Joyce Chen nonstick 12-inch Peking pan, my sauté pan of choice, add another tablespoon of olive oil to it, along with a half teaspoon of kosher salt, and heat this over a medium flame. The meat is waiting in a little bowl and I toss this with the minced clove of garlic and a pinch of Urfa Isot (Turkish hot pepper flakes—they are dark purple, hot, with a smoky, slightly fruity taste, substitute any hot pepper), and sauté the meat in the hot oil until it is cooked through, but still tender and juicy, which takes about ten minutes. I turn it out onto a plate.
At this point all that's left to do is to combine everything: first, the strained stock (the bones are set aside for a midnight snack), then the parsley, then the drained gemelli, and finally the turkey meat. Everything is stirred together and left on very low heat for the flavors to have a chance to meld and for me to clean up the kitchen. Here's a shot of the finished dish.
Matt has just come home from work to the unfamiliar aromas of a new dish. She isn't allowed to peek, but she is a demon at identifying cooking smells, so she knows we're having the fennel. But when she's ready to eat, I still manage to surprise her, and we're both pleased with the dish. The turkey and fennel do make a fine pair, nothing is overcooked, everything is nicely moist, and the textures play off each other in just the way I had hoped. True, the fennel stalk bits are flabby, but that is so much of an improvement over their being tough that we forgive them—this time.
* [Added March 16, 2009] Phil Miano disagrees: “I chop them finely and use them with garlic and some oil, forming a delightful green paste. I do this when I have a pork shoulder to roast. I separate the musculature in the shoulder and spread my paste throughout the shoulder. When the roast is carved you get slices of pork with the green ‘marbling.’ It’s delicious.”