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Thursday, November 13, 2008

What To Do With... Fennel aka Anise

Let me introduce you to a good friend of mine, Fennel. Fennel, this is everybody. (I had planned to publish this great photo for our introductions today, but when I saw it on the preview, I knew it wouldn't do. So, unfortunately, we have to go without today...) (Updated November 18th, 2008 - Hungry Gal note: A photo is worth a 100 words...)

Fennel and I only met in my twenties but I feel like we have been friends forever. Fennel sometimes goes by the name Anise and is a hearty but delicate tasting vegetable. It smells lovely and herbaceous and has a mild liquorice flavour that further mellows when cooked. But we almost didn’t become friends. In my younger years, I was too haughty and impetuous, “I am not going to like fennel.., I’ll pass.” But then we met, and I realized I was wrong and now, all is forgiven and we are pals.

So, if you see Fennel at the market, I encourage you to buy a bulb or two and try it. You just might like it.

Fennel is great raw or braised. With a sophisticated yet mild flavour, it’s more versatile than you think. It’s great with rich foods like cream and butter and also pairs beautifully with seafood.

Basic Preparation:
Cut off the fronds and stalks and put aside if you wish, for garnish and stock. Trim the fennel by trimming the bottom of the bulb and cutting the fennel in half. Now that it is in a manageable size, you can dice it, slice it thinly or cut it into large chunks.

Some ideas for Fennel:

1. Roast it: Slice thinly and toss with olive oil and herbs. Bake in an oven at 400 degrees until roasted.
2. Roast it with other vegetables: Toss in olive oil and roast with other vegetables such as peppers, onions, and zucchinis. Bake in a 400 degree oven until the vegetable’s edges are crisped while the rest of the vegetable soften.

Au Gratin:
3. Baked it: Slice paper thin and add to a potato gratin with crispy bacon

Raw in a Salad:
4. Throw it in a salad: dice raw fennel and add to your next salad (alongside some juicy tomatoes, and buttery boston lettuce)
5. Shave it: Shave fennel and plate with oranges and blue cheese salad (similar to my raw beet salad)

6. Braised it: Cut in large chunks and braise in white wine with leeks or onions
7. Serve it as a main dish: Braise in white wine, with chicken thighs, cannellini beans, tomatoes and onions.

With Seafood:
7. Steam it with mussels: Dice and toss into a moules mariniere (steamed mussels)
9. Saute it: Slice thinly and saute with butter and served with a portion of salmon
10. Throw it in a crab linguine: Dice and cook in a crab linguine pasta dish. Here’s one to try out, add about 1/2c diced fennel when sautéing the garlic and chillies. http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/database/linguinewithcrab_66026.shtml

If there is an ingredient you would like to see for future, drop me a line! Suggestions are always welcome.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Would Obama Eat This Chili? I Hope So...

Autumn has been dropping by periodically for at least a month now, and with each visit, it leaves us with colder weather, more fiery-coloured fallen leaves, and a definite dampness in the air. There was no point in denying it last week, when we set our clocks back an hour calling an end to Daylight Savings Time. There would be no more warm weather this year so we spent the better part of this past weekend preparing our home for the season ahead. We raked the leaves in our yard, put our outdoor furniture away and cleaned our basement. However, there is an upside to ushering in the cold weather, and it's the transition to the comfort foods which we eat with gluttonous glee. In our household, our favourite winter dish is the king of comfort foods, chili. And if you need further inspiration, apparently US President-Elect Barack Obama also makes a mean chili. With that kind of pedigree, I thought I might share my take on this great American classic this week.

While Americans are definitely passionate about chili, there is little agreement on what constitutes a proper chili. In fact, my quick internet search this morning revealed many permutations and combinations of chili based on regional tastes and ingredients. Say what you may, and however you like your chili, it’s a great cold weather dish and definite crowd pleaser. I can vouch that this is an absolutely delicious, flavourful and easy chili which has pleased the hearts and stomachs of many over the years.

The incarnation of this chili began many years ago when I was introduced to Cincinnati Chili. It had me at “hello” and it has been love ever since. Cincinnati Chili is a hugely popular chili all along the Ohio River Valley. It's more of a meat sauce in a thin, but rich broth served over spaghetti with a mound of thinly rasped orange-coloured cheddar. This is known as a Three-Way chili. Serve it with raw onions (!) and it’s a Four-Way and further top it with kidney beans and it’s a Five-Way. Any which way, I love Cincinnati Chili because of the rich flavours and perhaps because it is served over my favourite noodle, spaghetti. This version is still bold, but thicker and includes vegetables for additional flavour.

Don’t be put out by the parade of spices required for this recipe. It’s mostly common everyday spices that you have in your cupboard today, and is certainly worth the effort. This symphony of warm middle-eastern spices is really Moroccan-inspired, bearing a strong resemblance to one of my favourite spice mixes, charmoula, a North African blend of spices and herbs. And if you think the chocolate is a strange ingredient in this chili, please trust me on this one. Think of a Mexican chocolate mole sauce which is savoury, rich and complex. In this instance, chocolate is used to deepen and enrich flavours and this is exactly what it does in this for this chili. Try it out and if you absolutely, don’t like it, write me back and tell me about it.

In the past, I have made two versions for parties, a meat version and a vegetarian one. To make this vegetarian, I use a can of kidney beans (but use whatever beans you like) plus whatever vegetables you enjoy.

I have cooked this recipe in a slow cooker for a large weekend batch, but it easily cooked in a Dutch oven or any large stove top pot.

Cincinnati-Style Chili

1 lb lean ground beef
1 large onion finely minced
1 garlic clove minced
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp all spice
1 tsp mustard powder
1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp salt
2 tbsp chili powder
1 pinch ground cloves
2 bay leaves

1/2 pepper diced
1 celery stalk diced
10 white mushrooms sliced

1 28oz can diced tomatoes
1 can tomato paste (maybe two if you like your chili thicker)

finely grated cheddar cheese (the amount is up to you)

This recipe doubles nicely if you’re making it for large groups. But do check seasonings for taste, I have found for larger batches, you need to add additional salt, and chili. But I don't double the cocoa powder. I add an additional 1/2tsp.

1. Cook meat, onions and garlic until fully cooked on a low-medium heat. (Cook the meat but do not brown it.) Drain off fat as necessary. Move to a slow cooker.
2. Add the cinnamon, all spice, mustard, cocoa, cumin, salt, chili and ground cloves. Stir to incorporate.
3. Add can of tomatoes, tomato paste, other vegetables and bay leaves to the slow cooker. Mix thoroughly and cover.
4. Simmer for 8 hours in slow cooker or at least 2 hours on a stove top.
5. Serve with rice as I have done here or if you're more traditional, over spaghetti. Top with finely grated cheddar.
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