I’ve adopted a habit from my mother where any time I turn the oven on, or am even thinking about doing so, I’m automatically filling the racks in my head, leaving no space. If the oven’s on, it’s full, which leads to get ahead opportunities, bonus bakes and random side dishes from what’s languishing in the bottom drawer of the fridge. Sometimes the odd vegetable medleys work and sometimes they are met with quizzical but trusting optimism by Mr T, rightly so – the parsnip frittata wasn’t my finest moment. When you find a flavour combination or recipe that’s successful, it’s another staple to add to the autumn-winter oven playlist. I’m always excited to find new options, especially when it comes to spicing up vegetables. It can feel like I cook the same meals in rotation during the week, so anything that can perk up midweek and, as a bonus, can be bunged in the oven with minimal fuss makes me happy. So far I’ve baked two beautiful and fuss-free but divine cakes from At My Table and am forecasting some kind of dessert or baked treat per weekend for the foreseeable future. Time to at least intersperse with a savoury recipe in an effort to balance the sweetness.
Last week saw a random selection of root veg turned into a triumph with some garlic oil, sage, polenta and other bits and bobs which I can’t quite remember. I’ve developed an obsession with prepping veg and putting them in ziploc bags with oils, herbs and spices to roast or freeze for days where time or energy are in short supply. On one of my meal planning frenzies (I map out the week, usually scribbled on the back of an Instagram-unworthy envelope, stick to it for maybe two days and then freestyle an ad-hoc non-plan after that) I ordered an online shop to be delivered alongside flicking through At My Table for some new ideas. Fennel and carrot isn’t a combination I’ve had before; fennel isn’t a huge favourite in our house, no matter how much I try to push it, so the idea of roasting it with harissa and orange caught my eye straight away. I like harissa because it can be hot or not, as aromatic as it is spicy. Maybe between the zing of the satsuma zest and juice, the heat of the harissa paste and the sweetness of the carrots the fennel could be roasted into a version the boys will eat and enjoy.
The recipe could barely be easier – combine the orange, harissa, oil and salt in a bowl (or in my case a bag), peel and cut the carrots into batons and slice the fennel. Stashed in the fridge for later, I made some leek and potato soup and a pork ragu while the 2 year old played and watched in equal measure – neither of which were on the meal planner, so obviously we’ve gone off-piste from the get-go and I’m not sure either goes with the carrot and fennel bake but we’re nothing if not adventurous in this house (mainly not by choice). In a panic I roast some chicken and steam some broccoli and mangetout – this is chaotic cooking at its best, which is apt since I now read the make ahead tip for this dish is not to. Anyway, it feels kind of festive – like a spicy Christmas dish, which must be the orange, and, as with many of my oven creations, I tip it into an enamel oven dish and hope for the best.
The oven is releasing another homely smell and I can’t help but give the dish a zjoosh every time I go past, while watching it become more burnished each time. Saying that, hunger got the better of me after less than an hour and it probably could have stood an extra few minutes to become as bronze as it deserved. The verdict was all positive; the carrots were honeyed by the orange but not cloying and the fennel transformed into a mellow aniseed note – mild enough to pass the anti-fennel brigade. Another one to add to the list of oven love, although I can already feel my mind wandering down a trail of what else I can put harissa on…..dangerous territory.