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A fennel bulb and biltong starter? Elemental, my dears

Braised fennel bulb with biltong and a parmesan wafer

Let’s coin a word. Elemental. OK, it’s not a new word, as such. But as a food term, it’s the best word I can think of for the kind of plate you see more and more of in the jazzier, more avant garde restaurants. The kind of thing a Mike Bassett does, or a Luke Dale Roberts

It’s culinary showtime, kitchen kabarett. It’s the chef as artist, the chopping board as palette. Elemental cuisine is about assembling a plate of small things that complement one another but in which each item is an element in its own right. A sliver of something, a jellied something else, perhaps. A curl of a third thing, a swirl of a sauce, a slice of an ingredient that just looks damn pretty with all the rest of the stuff.

But they can’t be too disparate – at least, not disparate enough to jar with other ingredients. There needs to be harmony on the eye and on the palate.

Elemental food can be bloody awful. The worst thing about it is that its starting point is pretentiousness. Its entire intention is to impress, to create a bit of pizzazz on the plate, to have your guests sit up and take notice as soon as you set the plate before them.

Or, I guess, it could also start as confusion. It could start with you creating a menu, having seen endives in every shop you’ve been to for weeks on end, and deciding to create a whole starter dish around endive. And you print your menus (stay with me, it’s not something I always do, but it can be a bit of fun and a conversation starter at the table) and you climb into the car on the morning of the dinner party and you go to five different blimmin’ shops and does one of them have a single, solitary, pathetic bloody endive? Do they heck.

And no, lady at the veggie market in Hope Street, it’s not an En Dive, it’s an aahn-deeev. Jeez. If we’re gonna be pretentious we might as well get the French right. OK, Belgian-French.

But … and this turned out to be a very happy but … the last shop I went to happened to be Food & Veg City, and there, staring at me, were three packs of plump, pert little fennel bulbs.

So, out went the En-Dives and in came Fennel & Biltong. I’d invited good friends around and felt like spoiling them and making them feel special, so I printed off menus with dishes named to flatter them, printed them out, rolled them up and wrapped them with ribbon. There’s an instant buzz as guests unroll them and get a glimpse of the menu to come, with a soupcon of warmth and humour thrown in.

The Starter Formerly Known as Aahndeev Surprise (the surprise being that the endive was actually fennel) had a half fennel bulb as a centrepiece.

Earlier in the afternoon, make parmesan wafers, one for each guest plus a spare one in case one breaks – they’re extremely delicate. (OK, make three more, Daisy, one can’t be too careful these days.) Lightly oil an oven pan. Let’s say you’re making eight wafers. Grate parmesan into eight small piles on the oven tray. Using clean hands, flatten the pile then shape it out into the shape you want. I make them the shape and dimensions of a small wedge of lemon tart (but it works just as well in a chocolate cake wedge shape, Daisy). Using the sides of your hands, make the sides nice and straight. Place in the centre of a 180 degree oven and keep an eye on it every 30 seconds. At first it will melt, and slowly dry out. Just when it is almost dry and changing to a pale brown, whip them out and leave aside to cool to room temperature. Then very, very careful lift with a spatula and keep on kitchen paper in a plastic bakkie until you need them.

The fennel was braised on a very low heat for 45 minutes in butter. That’s all. Just turn it now and then so that there’s a gentle browning on all sides. I don’t think it even needs salt and pepper – it’s that delicate a taste. Halfway through the braising, add a large shallot, thinly sliced, to the pan and turn now and then until browned.

Place the fennel bulb somewhere on a big white plate. Mix a half pack of Philadelphia cream cheese and R20’s worth of finely sliced soft, rare beef biltong, and some fresh cream to soften it. Using an ice-cream scoop dipped in hot water, shape a perfectly round ball of this and place it somewhere else on the plate. Scatter around a few tatsoi leaves, after washing and drying them. Scatter the browned shallot all over the plate.

It’s all brought together with this dressing: gently saute fennel seeds and kalonji seeds (onion seeds, Daisy) in butter until they start to crackle. Add 3T lemon juice, 4T gingered honey (or other honey), and a goodly splash of olive oil. Simmer gently for a few minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and drizzle this all over the plate.

Place a parmesan wafer jauntily in the plate’s best vantage point, and serve.

This got serious oohs and aahs and even, from Ethene, a “this has to go in your cookbook”.Well, it’s stored away. Just in case.

First published in Weekend Argus April 2011

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