I confess – I am obsessed with fennel – less the seed and more the bulb. I don’t know if it is due to its absence from my childhood palate or its pronounced yet sublime anise flavour. I love it shaved in a salad, braised, stir-fried, creamed, sautéed, pickled or puréed. I always look for new ways to enjoy this tender bulb and hit a home run at our last Scrabble Sunday dinner.
As Rachel’s guest post described, we enjoyed a tapas-style dinner spanning five courses. We started with giant stuffed mushroom caps. While ingredient shopping for the remainder of the dinner, I spied some rather large mushrooms – perfect for stuffing. I picked them up and was inspired to whip together the stuffing mixture from our fridge contents. I mixed some dill-flavoured Philadelphia cream cheese with some steamed, strained and finely chopped spinach, a scant 1/2 cup Panko breadcrumbs, a healthy dash of cayenne and black pepper, 1/4 cup grated asiago cheese, juice from half a lemon and a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce. The stuffing was well mixed then smeared into the caps and sprinkled with a bit more asiago. Eric then grilled them over indirect heat on the barbecue until the asiago was crispy and browned.
TIP: This cooking method will give the mushroom caps a smoky flavour and a light char. The dry heat on the barbecue will also keep the caps from being watery. No one likes a soggy mushroom cap!
The second course consisted of the infamous duck-fat braised potato wedges. Baby red creamer potatoes were cut into wedges and tossed with liquid gold – or rather rendered duck fat – from a dinner a few days before. The wedges were sprinkled with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper, spread onto a cookie sheet and popped into a hot convention oven until the wedges were golden and crisp around the edges. They were plated and finished with more cracked pepper, flaked sea salt and fresh thyme. Oh my, they were GOOD!
The third course was dungeness crab salad – to be unveiled in a later post!
The last course consisted of a selection of five homemade ice creams – also requiring a separate blog post!
The fourth and best-rated course of the evening was the Fennel-almond, bay scallops, Fuji apple and watercress from Tyler Florence’s cookbook, Fresh. The perfect marriage between fennel and almond create a delicate and milky backdrop to the tender seared scallops, pickled apple orbs and peppery watercress. The dish has several components which are prepared separately and plated together just before serving. When entertaining, it is best to make most of these components ahead and spend just a few moments putting it all together. I don’t think I’ve ever had fennel soup – and I will definitely add this one in the culinary rotation.
Fennel-almond soup, bay scallops, Fuji apple, and watercress
1 cup each apple cider vinegar, unsweetened apple juice
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon each pickling spice, yellow mustard seeds
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
3 Fuji apples
1 quart whole milk
1 cup slivered blanched almonds
2 fennel bulbs, cored, white parts sliced (fronds reserved for garnish)
2 pounds bay scallops
Kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper
1/2 cup toasted slivered blanched almonds
1 bunch hydroponic watercress
Extra-virgin olive oil
Pickle the apples: In a medium saucepan, combine the cider vinegar, apple juice, sugar, pickling spice, mustard seeds, thyme, bay leaf, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and cool a bit. Use a melon baller to make as many balls as possible from the unpeeled apples (each ball will have a little of the pink skin on it). Add the balls to a vacuum-seal bag and then cover with the pickling liquid. Seal on medium pressure and set aside until ready to use. NOTE: I just put the apples in a container with the liquid and set it in the fridge for a few hours.
Make the fennel-almond purée: Pour the milk into a large pot along with the almonds and sliced fennel. Season with salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes, until the almonds and fennel are very tender. When done, carefully pour the entire mixture into a blender and puree until you have a silky, light puree.
Sear the scallops: Pat the scallops dry with paper towels, then season liberally with salt and a little pepper. Heat a large non-stick skillet over high heat. Coat with grapeseed oil and, when hot and shimmering, add the scallops. Sauté for 2 minutes, until the scallops are just cooked through and have some nice colour.
To serve, place some toasted almond slivers in the bottom of a shallow bowl. Add a few pickled apple balls, sautéed scallops, and reserved fennel fronds. Add a few sprigs of watercress, then pour some puree into the bowl. Drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil. NOTE: I substituted young fenugreek leaves for watercress.