Invariably when I buy fennel, the person standing next to me in the produce section asks me what I do with it. I usually tell them I slice it and roast it on high heat with olive oil and sea salt. Roasted fennel is complex and delicious, and I can usually convince my fellow customers to pick up a few bulbs of fennel themselves. This French stew is my other favorite way with fennel. I’m drawn to fennel stews from the Mediterranean that are brightened with citrus and perfumed with herbs. In hot summer weather, when I happen to crave a stew or soup, I want it to be lemony, light, and fresh.
This stew is an adaptation of a recipe in Skye Gyngell’s cookbook A Year in My Kitchen from the Petersham Nurseries on the outskirts of London. I have made this stew numerous times, but have gradually made it my own. Her stew is built on both fennel and artichokes, but I found the artichokes bland actually, in comparison to the fennel. I have finally landed on substituting yellow potatoes for the artichokes, and found that they pair perfectly with the fennel. I have also omitted the saffron threads from the original recipe. The flavors of the stew are so vibrant that the soft and subtle saffron is lost. I think it’s a waste of an expensive ingredient.
I have tried several other French fennel stew recipes over the years, but this one is more interesting because of the preserved lemon and olives. I love letting olives slowly cook into a stew or soup. They give off a saltiness that is more earthy that plain salt. If you can’t find preserved lemons at your local Arab market, you can make them at home, or substitute fresh lemon juice (although fresh lemon juice doesn’t have quite the same flavor). If using fresh lemon juice, you may have to add a bit extra juice to make the stew bright enough.
This recipe calls for a drizzle of “basil oil” for garnish. This is one of the foundational sauces of Gyngell’s cookbook. It’s similar to pesto in consistency, but omits the nuts and cheese, and you can use it in a myriad of ways. Keep in mind that it only keeps 1 week in the fridge, so you might want to make a smaller batch of it, or alternatively simply garnish the stew with a handful of torn basil leaves.
I like to serve this stew with either rice pilaf or couscous, a simple green salad, and dry white wine. I should also mention that I often make a double batch, especially on evenings like tonight when I’m cooking for guests and want to make sure I have plenty of leftovers.
FENNEL AND POTATO STEW WITH OLIVES AND PRESERVED LEMON
2 heads fennel
3 waxy yellow potatoes (such as Yukon Gold)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2-3 tablespoons butter
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage, plus extra leaves for garnish
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 dried red chili
4 plum tomatoes (or 14-oz canned plum tomatoes)
1/2 preserved lemon, chopped
1/2 cup vegetable broth
about 12 black olives (kalamata, Nicoise, or Ligurian)
freshly grated parmesan to serve
2 tablespoons basil oil (or alternatively, a handful of torn basil leaves)
For the basil oil, combine 3 bunches fresh basil in a food processor with 1 garlic clove, sea salt and black pepper to taste, and 3/4 cup good quality olive oil. Adjust seasonings and pour into a jar. It will keep refrigerated for 1 week.
Preheat the oven to 350F (180C). Trim the fennel and cut off the base. Cut each fennel bulb into quarters. Peel the potatoes and quarter them lengthwise.
Use a heavy saucepan that is oven-safe, and warm it on the stove at medium-heat. Add the olive oil and butter and heat until the butter has melted. Add the fennel and potatoes. Season with a little salt and cook for 10 minutes or so. Add the bay leaves, sage, and garlic. Crumble in the dried red chili, and stir to combine. Roughly chop the tomatoes and add to the pan, along with the chopped preserved lemon, then pour over the broth.
Cover and cook in the oven for 40 minutes, or until the fennel is very tender, adding the olives for the last 5-10 minutes.
Taste and adjust the seasoning then spoon over the basil oil (or torn basil), and scatter over some sage leaves to garnish. Sprinkle with grated parmesan and serve.