two ways with fennel

I love fennel. I think I would go so far to say that fennel is my very favourite vegetable at present. The bulb especially. There is something so refreshing and zingy about it, not the mention its various health properties - including it being wonderful for breastfeeding mums! So on a regular basis it finds itself thinly shredded and raw in salads and couscous, cooked in soups, stews and risottos and baked with herbs and other root vegetables. These are two inventions of late - fennel and wild mushroom brown rice risotto and fennel and rabbit stew. 

for the risotto:
(serves four)

2 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large fennel bulb, thinly chopped
1 cup mixed fresh or canned wild mushrooms like shiitake, oyster, chanterelle & oyster
2 cups short-grain brown rice (or aborio variety) 
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 litre chicken or vegetable stock
zest of 1 whole lemon
1/2-1 cup grated parmesan cheese
salt + pepper

Heat butter and olive oil in a heavy-based saucepan and fry onions until soft. Add fennel and cook for a few minutes. Add rice and cook for about 2 minutes coating the rice in the onion/oil thoroughly. Add mushrooms and wine and stir until all liquid is absorbed. Then add 1/2 cup of stock to rice and stir until absorbed. Repeat many many times until rice is just about cooked or al-dente - it took about 30 minutes for me but it will depend on you skillet, heat and the kind of rice so just keep an eye on it, test a little rice every now and again and use more stock if things are getting too dry. Stir in lemon zest and parmesan. Season as you like and garnish with a sprig of fresh fennel and a sprinkle of parmesan.

for the stew:
(serves four to six)

3 tablespoon butter
1 rabbit, cut into eights (2 back legs, 2 front legs and 2 loins) - around 900g
large brown onion, chopped
large fennel bulb, sliced
1 cup brown/pale ale
handful of fresh tarragon and thyme, finely chopped
3 large bay leaves
2-3 cups vegetable/chicken broth
**Optional: 1 cup cannelli beans + handful of chopped fresh spinach or kale**
1/2 cup pure cream
fresh chives or parsley to garnish

In a heavy-based saucepan heat 1 tablespoon butter and brown off rabbit pieces thoroughly - then put aside. In the pan with rabbit juices, add remaining butter along with fennel and onion. Cook until soft and golden. Return rabbit meat along with beer, broth and herbs. Bring to the simmer and cook on a gentle-medium heat for 60 - 90 minutes or until meat is tender and comes off the bone easily. Then carefully remove bay leaves any bones you can from the stew (I find a pair of tongs make this an easier task). Add in 1 cup of cooked cannelli beans and a handful of chopped spinach or kale if you like. Stir in cream and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve creamy stew with mashed potatoes, rice or whatever you like best - and a sprinkle of chopped fresh chives.

Have you ever eaten rabbit before? You really must try it once - I remember my parents cooking it for us when I was teenager and I don't remember much about - it certainly wasn't offensive, though perhaps on the chewy side? Then a few weeks ago we we had dinner at friend's house and the French hostess prepared a rabbit stew with wine and thyme and cream and it was beautiful. I worked my own version on hers with the addition of fennel and ale in the place of wine. I've made it a couple of times now and each time savour the deliciously gamey-beery-hearty-herby flavours. There are plenty of rabbits for sale at our weekly fresh produce markets - here in France they are much cheaper than their chicken counterparts, higher in protein, free-range and gentle on the environment too!

Bon app├ętit!