It’s a case of two for the price of one with recipes this week. I wanted to do a quick pickle recipe, to show how simple preserving foods can be. After the indulgence of Christmas, it’s quite usual to crave some fresh and simple flavours in January and a tangy pickle satisfies that need perfectly. Pickling is a great way to use up the extra vegetables that tempted you in your more virtuous mood, and a sustainable method for hanging on to those foods we know we’ll miss once their season comes to an end.
Fennel is a staple in Italy, and although it’s aniseed flavour is not popular with everyone here, the way you prepare it can reveal a range of new flavours and textures. When raw, it’s crisp and powerful, but once cooked both the flavour and texture soften, becoming sweet and gentle. It’s also a very beautiful vegetable, moving from a bright white base to minty green fronds. Just having them in a kitchen instantly brings colour and freshness. If you can, buy smaller bulbs as they tend to be younger and more tender. The leafy fronds are the fennel herb, and have a great flavour, so look out for bulbs with lots of fresh green and no yellowing.
This salad is a bowlful of January, and a reminder that even in the darkest months we can find fresh produce that both looks and tastes beautiful. The inspiration is definitely Italian, but by using local produce and a wintry pickle the dish becomes a lovely medley of Northern and Southern European cookery. There are dozens of truly beautiful varieties of radicchio, but try and find the round ‘Chioggia’ variety as that is more likely to have been grown in the UK. The bitterness of the radicchio pairs well with a peppery salad leaf like rocket or watercress, but any winter green you can find will slot in well. Markets are a great way to see what’s about, and if you can find a great producer like Wild Country Organics then you know the salad leaves will be chemical free and grown with care.
Citrus Pickled Fennel
(Makes enough for a 1L Kilner Jar)
800g of fennel, finely sliced (use a mandolin for best results)
30g of sea salt
500ml Apple Cider Vinegar
50g of sugar
Zest of 1 orange, sliced into thin strips
Zest of 1 lemon, sliced into thin strips
1tsp black peppercorns
1st fennel seeds
2 star anise flowers
There are some important pre-pickle steps to getting the best results.
Firstly, brining the vegetable in salt will help it to retain some texture, and is a good process for pickles as it draws water out of the vegetable, letting more of the flavours find their way in. If you are organised enough, I recommend salting it overnight, but even a couple of hours will make a difference. Simply dissolve the salt in water and pour the mix over the sliced fennel, ensuring everything is covered. Leave it to stand at room temperature, or refrigerate if leaving overnight.
Secondly, its important to properly sterilise the Kilner jar. To do this, preheat the oven to 150°C. Wash the jar thoroughly with hot soapy water and rinse well. Dry, and place the jar in the oven for 20-30 minutes. Wash the rubber seals thoroughly and make sure everything is clean and dry before use. Do this while you are making the pickling vinegar and it will ensure the pickle keeps for several months.
Once the pickling admin is over, make a start on the flavoured vinegar. Combine the vinegar and spices in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and leave it to simmer for 15 minutes or so. Turn off the heat and stir in the sugar until it has completely dissolved. You can use more or less according to your own taste. Some cider vinegars are much sweeter than others, and you’re not looking for a cloying sweetness here.
While the vinegar is cooling a little, wash the brine off the fennel and rinse it well. Drain it in a colander and pat gently with a clean tea towel to get rid of as much water as possible.
Put the fennel into the sterilised Kilner jar and push it down with a wooden spoon, packing it as tightly as you can. Pour over the vinegar, making sure to get all the zest and spices in there too. The liquid should completely cover the fennel, and it’s important that none of the vegetable is exposed. Pouring a little olive oil over the top acts as a second seal.
Seal the jar, and leave the pickle in a cool, dark place for up to several months but refrigerate once opened. It will be ready to eat straight away, but even leaving it for a couple of days will allow the flavours to mellow and infuse into a deeper, more delicious mix.
Racicchio, Cress & Pickled Fennel Salad.
1 head of radicchio leaves, torn
1 bag of cress, or other peppery salad leaf
1 bulb raw fennel, sliced thinly
Handful of citrus pickled fennel
White wine vinegar
Mix olive oil, honey, lemon juice, and a dash of vinegar together to make a salad dressing. Toss the leaves and raw fennel together, then gently add in some of the pickled fennel. Pour your salad dressing into the bowl, sprinkle over a little crushed sea salt and mix gently.
This salad works really well as an accompaniment to pork and game, and I served it with sausages for a quick mid-week supper. But if you were feeling more virtuous, try adding shavings of Parmesan, toasted nuts, or a grain like pearl barley to make a more satisfying dish.