Fennel and grilled berries make sophisticated dessert partners when combined with a smooth panna cotta. Berries at the peak of flavor are the key to this dish; use wild ones, if you are lucky enough to find them.
A mixture of blueberries and raspberries may be substituted; a perforated grill pan or piece of perforated heavy-duty aluminum foil is necessary for the grill.
- For the panna cottas
- 1 bulb fennel, including feathery top
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon honey, preferably lemon grass honey
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 grind freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons licorice-flavored liqueur, such as anisette or sambuca
- 1 tablespoon powdered plain gelatin softened in 1/2 cup cold water, or 4 sheets gelatin soaked in 1/2 cup cold water
- For the strawberries
- 3 cups medium strawberries, washed, blotted dry and hulled, reserving 8 berries with stems for garnish
- 1 cup sugar, plus 2 1/2 tablespoons
- 1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise
- 1 cup chilled heavy cream
For the panna cottas: Lightly coat eight 6- to 8-ounce ramekins with nonstick cooking oil spray and set aside (disposable foil cups are okay to use). Refrigerate a large stainless-steel mixing bowl so that it is well chilled.
Cut the feathery tops off the fennel bulb; chop enough of the most delicate fronds (about 1/2-inch lengths) to fill 1/2 cup and set aside. Cut the bulb in half from stem to root end and then cut into very thin slices. Place the sliced fennel, heavy cream, milk, sugar, honey, salt and pepper in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to ensure that the sugar has dissolved, then remove from the heat and let the mixture steep for 15 minutes. Strain, discarding the solids. Add the liqueur and the softened gelatin and stir until the gelatin has completely dissolved. Divide the reserved chopped fronds among the ramekins, then fill the ramekins with the panna cotta mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 6 to 24 hours, or until set.
For the strawberries: Prepare the grill. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high. If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them evenly under the cooking area for direct heat. Lightly coat a perforated grill pan or a sheet of heavy-duty foil poked with holes (use a fork) with nonstick cooking oil spray.
Toss the strawberries with 1 cup of sugar in a medium bowl, then gently shake any excess sugar off the berries. Place the berries and the vanilla bean halves in the perforated pan. Grill for 2 to 3 minutes, until the sugar on the berries just starts to caramelize, shaking the pan slightly to move the berries. Transfer to a plate along with the vanilla bean halves to cool.
To serve, run a knife around the inside of each ramekin and invert the panna cottas onto individual plates; they should come out easily, with the fennel fronds displayed on the top. Scrape the seeds from the grilled vanilla bean halves into the chilled mixing bowl. Add the remaining 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar and 1 cup of heavy cream; use a hand-held mixer on high speed or a whisk to beat to soft peaks. Carefully fold the grilled berries into the whipped cream and spoon over the panna cottas. Garnish each plate with one of the reserved berries. Serve immediately.
Adapted from Restaurant Local chef Richard Hamilton.
Tested by Tom Wilkinson.
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