Chef Yotam Ottolenghi heightens the flavours in this fennel starter with verjuice. This juice, common in Australia, is made from semi-ripe wine grapes. Once scorched, the 15 garlic cloves add a mellowing sweetness to an otherwise sharp dressing. If observing a dairy-free diet, the ricotta isn’t essential, but it helps to balance the acidity.
4 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed (1 2/3 lb)
about 3 tbsp olive oil, plus extra to finish
15 large cloves garlic, skin on (2 ½ oz)
¼ cup verjuice, or a mixture of ¼ cup lemon juice and 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 small tomato, diced into 3/8-inch pieces (about 1/3 cup)
about 1 cup vegetable stock
2 ½ tbsp capers
3 ½ tbsp black wrinkly olives, pitted and cut in half
1 tbsp chopped thyme leaves
2 ½ tsp superfine sugar
6 ½ tbsp ricotta
1 tsp grated lemon zest
salt and black pepper
Cut the trimmed fennel from top to bottom along the longest side into slices ¾-inch thick.
Place 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large sauté pan (for which you have a lid) and place over medium-high heat. Add half of the fennel along with a pinch of salt and a good grind of black pepper. Cook for five to six minutes, turning once, so that both sides are nice and browned. Remove from the pan and repeat with the remaining fennel, adding more oil, if needed, and seasoning as you go.
Once all the fennel is seared and removed from the pan, add the garlic cloves and a tiny bit of oil, if needed (a thin film of oil is enough here), and fry for about three minutes, tossing occasionally, so that the garlic skin gets scorched all over. Turn down the heat to medium before carefully (it spits!) adding the verjuice. Let it reduce for a couple of minutes to about 2 tablespoons liquid. Add the tomato, 7 tablespoons of the stock, the capers, olives, thyme, sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, and some black pepper. Bring to a simmer for two minutes before returning the fennel to the pan. Add the remainder of the stock, cover the pan, and simmer for about 12 minutes, turning once during the cooking, until the fennel is completely soft and the sauce has thickened. You might need to remove the lid and increase the heat for the final two or three minutes of cooking, to reduce and thicken the sauce.
Place two slices of fennel on each plate, spoon the sauce over the slices, and serve with a spoonful of ricotta, if using, and some lemon zest. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and serve warm or at room temperature.