A pear-shaped journey and a perfectly-formed recipe: Insalata di finocchi, pere, ravanelli e pinoli
Juan Gris – Still life with fruit dish and mandolin
Last weekend I travelled down to London for more surgery for my pain, which now completely dominates my senses. The doctors that treat me are still trying to hit upon an effective form of pain relief for me, and hopefully win me a little of my life back. So, the plan this time was that I would stay over in the capital for one night, I’d check into hospital to have an operation early the following morning and, if the surgery went smoothly, I’d slump onto the evening train back to Newcastle. But, just as my boots clapped down on the platform at King’s Cross, I felt my thigh vibrate and duly answered the silent phone call. It was someone from the hospital, kindly notifying me that because they’d botched up scheduling the appointment, I’d have to loiter around London over the weekend, and would undergo the operation on Monday morning instead. Humph!
This unexpected cock-up meant I had now had to find ways to kill time and distract myself from my discomfort. Looking on the bright side, I no longer had to endure staying ‘nil-by-mouth’ that evening and therefore was released from the distressing thought of missing out on two potentially tasty meals – foregoing a scheduled feeding opportunity always feels like missing a best friends’ birthday, it swells me up with guilt and the hunger just makes me cantankerous. My next few days would be devoted to eating away the hours and my cares, on a balanced diet of art, food and football.
So, over the weekend: I moseyed around the National Gallery on Friday, I watched Fulham and Derby County thump a soggy football around on Saturday; and I perused books in Foyles on Sunday, trying to memorise all the titles I could buy cheaper on eBay later on. However, once again, the most rewarding outing whilst in London was an afternoon spent at Tate Modern. On this occasion I went away with a few of the stunning pictures by underrated cubist artist Juan Gris imprinted into my mind. Unlike many of the monochromatic cubist works by Braque and Picasso, Gris’ paintings were persistently decorative, harmonious and glowing with colours. I get immense joy from Gris’ playful interpretation of objects in space, as in his paintings the different objects and their surroundings overlap, intersect and blur together beautifully. Naturally, I picked out a pretty Gris postcard in the gift shop and posted it… to myself.
When my day in hospital finally came around it was a rather dreadful ordeal. I squirmed about, restlessly waiting from seven-thirty till late in the afternoon without anything to occupy myself, apart from the caring nurses coming regularly to take blood pressure readings. Thankfully, the operation itself was without any complications, yet after forty-five minutes of my doctors’ greatest efforts, it sadly appears that the whole thing was unproductive, because my stubborn body is still in persistent pain mode.
By the time I got out of hospital at five thirty I was sore, sick and fresh out of ‘opiod’ painkillers. I desperately needed some good food to heal my heart and cheer me up, so I trundled into Barrafina, just as the tapas restaurant was opening up. Having not eaten a single sausage in 24 hours, the bounteous selection of seafood shimmering on ice was enough to send my saliva glands into slobbering hyperdrive. Blissfully, when the tapas I’d ordered was served, it was marvellous; I savoured the delectable flavours of skate, sardines, langoustines, pimientos de padron, and courgette flowers stuffed with goat’s cheese and dribbled liberally with honey.
Finally we now get onto describing the dish that inspired this blog post. When I dine in restaurants I like to read the menu meticulously; taking it all in and tasting each dish in my mind, is one of the most satisfying dining rituals. So when this time I glanced upon “Fennel, Comice Pear & Radish”, the thought of these flavours instantly tickled my imagination. As I’d already ordered half the menu and eaten it greedily (and was now waiting for my honey gelato), I scribbled down a note-to-self: to remember that I must try combining these ingredients when I was back at home. Hence, after the uncomfortable train journey and a few nondescript days chilling in my lair, I did try it and can tell you that the simple union of bright anise fennel, piquant radish and sweet-tasting pear is amazing. I’m hopelessly greedy, so scarcely ever leave a salad dish unaccompanied, but this scrumptious salad has clean, bright flavours that are ideal to sharpen your appetite or to settle your stomach after fish or meat. To top it off, the salad’s attractive cubistic-looking composition reminds me, more than a little, of Juan Gris’s still-life paintings. Naturally a humble fennel salad can’t quite capture Gris’ harmonious complexity, but if you really get pleasure from foods’ aesthetic qualities, as I do, this is an exquisite and rather sexy salad.
Now, I concede that this isn’t strictly a traditional Italian insalata, because of course I pinched the idea from a terrific London tapas restaurant didn’t I? Nevertheless, the underlying elements are quintessential Italian cuisine: brilliant simplicity, freshness and complimentary flavours. The vinaigrette consists of superb extra-virgin, lemon juice and salt, and that’s sufficient to bring the best out of the ingredients. Yet, as ever, it is imperative you select the freshest fruit and vegetables. In particular, well-chosen sweet and juicy pears are important here, as some super-market varieties can be bland and shamefully underwhelming. Whilst even the most lacklustre pears can be livened up after a short sentence in the cooler (fridge), you must only settle for the best, because there are plenty of tasty pears out there waiting for you in local green-grocers’ and markets. For this recipe I have used the much-loved, soft and sweet, Williams (or Bartlett) pears which are happily ubiquitous and delicious, though the creamy Comice would also make a fine choice. The peppery radishes (ravanelli) that you buy, to be enjoyed at their crisp clean-flavoured optimum, should feel firm and not too large in size.
Before you begin: For this salad, I have added some nuts and herbs to perk up the flavours. The untoasted pine nuts add a nice chewiness and extra layer of flavour. Alternatively, toasted hazelnuts or pecans could be used, but you may decide to keep it beautifully uncomplicated without any herbs or nuts at all. Lastly, don’t forget to add the vinaigrette at the last possible moment before serving so that the ingredients don’t go all mushy.
A salad of fennel, pears, radishes and pine nuts
(Adapted from Barrafina‘s menu)
Enough for 2
- 1 large fennel bulb
- 2 plump Williams pears
- 5 -10 radishes
- small handful of mint leaves
- small handful of pine nuts
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Trim the base from the fennel and remove any tough outer pieces. Chop off the fennel stalks and trim off the feathery green fronds to use later as a garnish. Chop the fennel in half and shave each piece very thinly using a mandoline slicer or a sharp knife – please watch those fingers. Finely shave the radishes into thin little discs using a mandoline. Halve the pears and slice them thinly with a knife, discarding the pips and woody bits. Finely tear up the mint leaves.
For the vinaigrette, mix together 3 tablespoons of excellent extra-virgin olive oil with 1 tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Season with a pinch of salt and whisk together thoroughly.
Pour a little of the emulsified vinaigrette into a large serving bowl. Add in all the other ingredients, except for the fennel fronds. Add the rest of the vinaigrette into the serving bowl and toss everything together considerately using your hands. Taste it and check for seasoning, add in some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, toss again. To finish, scatter the fennel fronds over the salad and serve, pronto.