Currently this dish is joined by some oak smoked tuna, which is a great product and worth seeking out, adding black olives and rosemary gives the whole dish a Mediterranean feel. This would pair equally well with other oily fish such as mackerel, or just plain old fresh tuna if you are fortunate enough to have had a small lottery win to justify the price.
I have also previously replaced the orange element for lime (same method: increase the number of limes to double that of oranges) and gone off on a completely different tangent giving the dish a Latino or Asian feel as the fancy takes me...I know, I know, I’m out of control!
4 average size* bulbs of fennel – the size of cooking apples
3 oranges, again average size
300g caster sugar
300ml good quality white wine vinegar
A few black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
Trim the fennel tops, take off the outer layer (or don’t if it looks in good nick) and slice as thinly as you can, a mandolin would make life much easier…that’s the kitchen gadget, not the musical instrument.
As you go, have a large bowl of cold water to hand, in which you have a hefty squirt of lemon juice. This is ‘acidulated water’ and will keep your fennel crisp and white.
Peel half a dozen Band-Aid size strips off each orange, taking as little pith as possible. Bring a small pan of water to the boil and blanch these for 2 minutes. Drain them and chuck the water (This little process should negate any bitterness from the pith remnants).
Rinse the pan out and add the sugar along with the white wine vinegar and set it over a low heat to dissolve the sugar slowly. Add the strips of orange peel, a bay leaf and half a dozen black peppercorns.
Whilst that is happening, juice the oranges. Personally I prefer the look of the finished article without ‘the bits’ and strain my juice through a sieve. You may prefer to include them – and it’s one less thing to wash up. Add the juice to the pan.
Once the sugar has dissolved and the contents of the pan have reached a simmer, taste a little. Add a pinch of sea salt and taste again – you’re not aiming to taste the salt, just take the edge off the sweet and sharp high-notes and balance the whole thing nicely.
When you’re happy with that, drain the fennel from its water, pop it into another bowl and pour over the orange pickling liquor. Now, don’t panic that there don’t seem barely enough to cover – the fennel will start to relax in the hot liquid and all will be well in the world.
It’s ready once its cooled, but it will also keep very nicely for a few days in the fridge.
*You know the expression “how long is a piece of string”?, well it would be more appropriate to ask, “how big is a bulb of fennel?” but I don’t think it would catch-on somehow. The other thing is, if you buy an average sized bulb of fennel (because that’s what the recipe calls for) you may well get it home, take off the outer layer and be left with something the size of a pea…so bear this is mind.