Out of the Blue
Janet Wynne Evans on how to make the most of items like fennel and other treasures in the 'reduced aisle' with a recipe for a blue-cheese fennel gratin
For the wretchedly time-poor, good eating demands good planning or a very generous food budget. Time is money and convenience food, whether it's fillet steak or a ready meal, is so-called for a reason. The best kind of convenience food, of course, is the labour-intensive kind you made earlier for quick reheating, if only you'd had the time to cook it.
To be time-rich is to experience the joy of market cooking, the way our ancestors did it. By this I don't mean merely rocking up at urban farmers' markets or premium foodie meccas with an open mind (and wallet) and letting dinner invent itself. That luxury is available only to the cash-rich. I don't know about you but one of the reasons I'm time-poor is because I need to be in some kind of paid employment to fuel my taste in, well, refuelling.
My cuisine du marché is all about keeping eye and mind open for a bargain and having a meal plan flexible enough to accommodate it. Any organised shop, whether at an übermarket (especially at the end of the day) or a supermarket should include a twirl around those shelves where, despite recent and admirable anti-food-waste initiatives, there are still myriad items Reduced for Quick Sale. You win some and you lose some, to be sure, but it's very bad luck never to find anything other than unfeasible quantities of swede, luncheon meat or outlandishly flavoured yoghurt up for grabs.
Fennel is one such treasure. If I see one forlornly awaiting adoption, I'm prepared to mud-wrestle any rival thriftmeister for it, though this hasn't yet been necessary. The level of public ignorance about this regal vegetable and what to do with it is such that more than one checkout operator has asked me what on earth it was.
Borne home in triumph, it does need immediate processing but this is the work of moments: either a quick wedge and blanch for a gratin-in-waiting or a rapid feed through a mandoline or fine slicer into a bath of salted lemon juice, ready to lift a simple green salad to new heights.
The recipe for blue fennel gratin was born of just such a find. The half-price lump of gorgonzola alongside it was an omen, and the end of a tired baguette in my bread bin palpably perked up. There's nothing bargain-basement about this dish though. Unlike some recipes for fennel gratin which are bludgeoned by cream and butter, this is one that lets the aniseed bite of the fennel shine under a piquant and crunchy topcoat.
One drawback of the kind of spontaneity that produces a little classic like this is that it will never taste quite the same next time, even if you spend three times as much money, time and petrol on gathering the ingredients. The most important of these is, after all, serendipity, which you can't buy, even in west London.
Call it a fennel-bulb moment, and a fleeting one at that. The thing is to stay switched on, ready for the next.
Find Janet's recipe for 'Out of the Blue Fennel Gratin' in our online recipe folder.
Janet Wynne Evans
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