Chris Cosentino Cooks Wild Fennel
Wild fennel grows freely in Italy, Sicily and some parts of the US. Botanists would call it piperitum, but throughout central California, the chefs call it "freeway fennel" where this member of the carrot family accompanies drivers along miles of the Golden State's highways, bursting out of every ounce of soil that allows it, spilling on to the pavement.
Wild fennel has no bulbous root like its Mediterranean cousin, but does posses a flavor-packed-punch when treated with care and creativity. Its pollen can be harvested. Take the plant when in bloom, hang it upside down with a paper bag covering its bright yellow flowery top. As the plant dries the pollen dries too, tap the bag and it will capture the dried pollen - an awesome ingredient to sprinkle on top of sautéed or grilled fish.
As for the rest of the plant, many food fans toss it aside once they have stolen its gold, but not Chris Cosentino the chef of San Francisco restaurant Incanto. Chris has a fetish for fennel and it gets put to much use in his kitchen, creating Southern Italian influenced dishes using locally grown organic ingredients - or in this case harvested from the side walk.
Chris stuffs the cavity of poussin with the thick stem of the plant and nestles the baby bird with the fennel's fronds before enveloping in a fennel seed laced salt crust. Once baked, you are in for a delicious delight.
Poussin in Salt Crust with Wild Fennel
4 1.5 lb poussins
1 large bunch young wild fennel
1 lemon cut in ¼
For the Salt Crust
75 g chopped wild fennel fronds
25 g lemon zest
1.6 kg all purpose flour
700 g kosher or sea salt
480 g egg whites (16 eggs)
370 g water
First start by making the salt dough. Finely chop the washed wild fennel and lemon zest, and then mix all ingredients with the exception of the water all together. Add enough water to bring the dough together, don't make it to wet, but if it's to dry it will be crumbly and will not stay together. Knead the salt dough for 10 minutes either by hand or by using a mixer. After 10 minutes wrap with plastic wrap and let it sit for 3 hours in the fridge to rest.
While the dough is resting clean up the birds by trimming off the excess fat in and around the cavity, then remove the wing tips. Be sure to remove the neck and giblets bag from inside the cavity of each bird. Season the poussin inside with salt and fresh black pepper, and then stuff the lemon wedge inside the cavity. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Remove from the fridge and let it come to room temperature before you start to roll it out. On a floured work surface roll the dough out to about ¼ inch thick and wide enough to be able to wrap the pouisson (about 8 inches around) Place the wild fennel fronds in a mound in the middle of the dough place the bird breast side down on top of the wild fennel then cover the top of the bird with more fennel. Gently fold the salt dough around the bird so it comes together and seals the bird in. Be sure there is no holes, the crust will act as a steam and help to cook the bird. Repeat the steps with the other 3 birds. Once the oven reaches 350 degrees place the sheet pan of birds on the top shelf of the oven and cook for 45 minutes to an hour.
Remove the birds from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes to allow the juices to settle before cutting threw the salt crust. To serve bring to the table and remove the birds from the crust in front of your guests. The birds can be served with a shaved fennel and blood orange salad.