Zucchini and Fennel with Saffron Crumbs


Grilled vegetables with saffron crumbs

Zucchini and fennel may not appeal to everyone. They don’t make the list of your favorite everyday vegetables. But if they are properly prepared, they could be transformed into something most satisfying and aromatic. Ottolenghi did just that with this recipe in Plenty More by bringing out the distinctive anise-like flavor of fennel and making zucchini, which can be very bland, into something distinctive by grilling them.

Twice cooked saffron crumbs made with farro hazelnut bread
Grill zucchini and fennel until lightly charred

The recipe calls for light grilling for one minute on each side of the vegetables. Are you sure about grilling, seriously? But why? Fighting the winter chill with a fiery fire may very well satisfy the kitchen god and bring delicious goodness to the dinner table, real or imagined. Using the outdoor grill, when the East coast of the US is hit by a historic ferocious blizzard, is not an option. My outdoor grill is buried under at least a foot of snow. Firing up the grill has to be done in the kitchen over the stovetop grill pan. That may present another set of issues. Remember that time… Firefighters had shown up at my house, truth to be told, more than once, when the exhaust fan was slow to handle the billow of smoke emiting from the grill pan. The alarm system, in its loud robotic voice, screamed: “Fire, fire!”  No joke, at least not according to the fire department. I got a bill for the infraction of multiple “false” alarms.

For all the mishaps, I still love grilling on the ridged grill pan in the kitchen. There is a certain irresistibility about grilling; smoke and char bring a primeval thrill with my pulse racing. To get those fancy grill marks and rich flavor, the trick is to heat the pan long enough to get it red hot. Grilling the zucchini and fennel slices took more than one minute on each side. I’ve learned not to rush it: cook according to the senses of smell and color, not to the clock. I looked for the slight char on the edges of the vegetables. The distinctive roast flavor of the vegetables was just as good as, if not better than, any barbecue food I had from the grill in the summertime.

The crunchy element really elevates this dish. I made the saffron crumbs, more like crackling croutons, using a farro porridge hazelnut bread (click here for the post on this bread). The bread crumbs were soaked in saffron water, baked and then fried in garlic-flavored olive oil. The twice-cooked crumbs were hitting all the right note. Their complex flavor and crunchy texture were the perfect complement to the grilled vegetables. This dish met my expectations and brought sizzles, warmth and fiery to the frosty winter weather.

Garnish with chopped dill


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