Thursday, December 16, 2010

stewing about it

According to Shakespeare's logic, if a rose went by the name of " garbage bin," it would still smell just as sweet.

Shakespeare, though, must not have been very well-versed in cooking, because that's decidedly not the case when it comes to naming dishes. Even after figuring out ingredients and proportions and writing up a method for a recipe, there's one last, crucial step: giving it a name.

The chefs of haute cuisine had it easy; for them, it was enough to name the main ingredient, and tack on an a la So-and-So. Name the dish for a refined aristocrat, a famed beauty, or even a revered chef, and voila, an instant hit.

Not so today. Now, the trick is to be descriptive without being excessive, to be accurate without being a bore. The recipe name has to hit the sweet spot between "yes, I know what that is," and "mmm, that sounds good," preferably in under six words.

This brings me to the problem of stew.

The words "vegetable stew" are cheerfully wholesome, evocative of big bowls of rough-cut vegetables, healthy and nourishing. "Beef stew" suggests something slow-cooked with red wine and plenty of mushrooms, or maybe a hearty goulash fragrant with paprika and sour cream.

"Stewed," though, tends to have decidedly different connotations. It carries overtones of something overcooked, limp, and possibly malodorous. Stewed cabbage, however delicious, doesn't sound it. Stewed apples could be a crime against fruit. And even for someone who genuinely likes prunes, a stewed prune sounds more like a remedy for digestive issues than an appetizing dessert.

So, by rights, I shouldn't be writing about stewed fennel, or at least I shouldn't be calling it stewed fennel. Still, it's the best way of describing the low, slow cooking that turns slices of tough older bulb into softly slumping tangles, mellowing its aggressive anise flavor into something sweeter and subtler. Stewed fennel might be an exception to the usual rule.

Cooked with garlic and orange zest, and simmered in tomato sauce, it's a nice accompaniment to plain-cooked white fish. It might be even nicer, though, when spooned over homemade gnocchi. Which brings me to the final name for this dish. 

I think it sounds pretty good, even if it isn't under six words.

Potato Gnocchi with Stewed Fennel in Tomato Sauce

(Makes four to six servings, depending on your appetite. Uncooked gnocchi may be frozen. Sauce may be frozen.)

To make the gnocchi, take a pound of boiling potatoes (Yukon Golds are good), peel, cube, and cook in salted boiling water until tender. Drain and allow to cool.

Put the cooled potatoes in a mixing bowl and mash with a fork. (Or put them through a food mill, if you have one.) Beat in one egg until the mixture is thick and creamy. Stir in one cup of flour and a half-teaspoon of salt. You should have a soft dough that is still a little on the sticky side.

Put a quarter-cup or so of flour on a clean countertop. Pinch off rounded teaspoon-size lumps of dough and roll them in the flour. Press on each side with the tines of a fork to create a grooved pattern. Place the gnocchi on baking trays. Gnocchi may be frozen at this point.

To make the sauce, heat two tablespoons butter and a little olive oil over low heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with lid. Add two finely sliced cloves of garlic. Once the garlic starts to smell fragrant, add one large sliced fennel bulb (or two small.) Sprinkle over a fat pinch of salt, give everything a quick stir, and pop the lid on the pan.

Wait ten minutes, then give everything another stir. Put the lid back on the pan. Repeat this process every ten to fifteen minutes until the fennel starts to soften and take on color.

When the fennel starts to look browned around the edges, leave the lid off the pan, and grate over the zest of one orange. Add one six-ounce can of tomato paste, and enough water to thin it to a saucy consistency. Stir well to combine.

Bring the sauce to a low simmer, and put the lid back on the pan. Cook for thirty to forty minutes, giving it an occasional stir. Turn off the heat; keep warm.

To assemble, cook gnocchi in simmering salted water (not boiling water; they'll fall apart) until they float to the surface. Spoon into a bowl and cover with sauce. Serve with Parmigiano-Reggiano or Gorgonzola.

1 comment:

Cakelaw said...

Mmmm ... I can almost smell this stew from here.