Something appealing, nothing appalling… just some Roman-ish baked fennel.
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A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (or just Forum, for short!) holds a special place in our hearts here at Cabernet Towers, as it is the last show (to date!) that Keith, Georgina and I were all involved in together – so long ago that it probably was in Roman times…
Based on the writings of Roman playwright Plautus, Forum is a bawdy musical farce set in ancient times with music by Stephen Sondheim, Comedy Tonight being the most famous number. The original productions starred Zero Mostel (1962 Broadway) and Frankie Howerd (1963 West End) as Pseudolus, a slave attempting to earn his freedom by helping his young master, Hero, woo the lovely Philia, a virginal courtesan already promised to fearsome warrior Miles Gloriosus (and his magnificent thighs). Much confusion ensues involving potions, a haunted house, a pyre of fire and a great deal of mistaken identity. Mostel reprised the role in the 1966 movie and Howerd went on to have one his biggest successes with the classic 1970s BBC TV sitcom Up Pompeii based on a very similar premise.
By rights, any recipe based on this show should involve a plump pea-hen and a cup of mare’s sweat. However, the latter in particular is hard to get hold of (especially on a balmy day like this). Instead, I’ve gone for a tray of roasted vegetables based on one of Plautus’ own recipes. Maybe.
Fennel is a great salad vegetable but is also one of those love/hate ingredients due to the strong aniseed taste. Cooking it tones that down for a more mellow flavour that may persuade the fennel-hater in your life to reconsider… This dish is a great accompaniment for pork, grilled chicken or grilled white fish – I baked some pork sausages with mine (but removed them from the photo as it was prettier without!).
The juniper berries work well with the fennel, so worth a try if you have some, but it will still be tasty without. Likewise, the fennel seeds aren’t essential but add to the overall fennellyness that a dish with this title demands – in fact, substituting some pastis or ouzo (or other aniseed drink) for the wine would give that a boost if you’re a fan.
Trim the fennel bulbs removing any dry bits from the root end and setting aside any of the green fronds for later. You could quarter the bulbs but I cut them into 1cm slices as the cross-section is quite attractive. Using a pestle and mortar, crush the juniper berries, salt, garlic and olive oil together and rub this over the cut fennel.
Give the tomatoes, red onion (cut into wedges) and rosemary a coating of oil and assemble the ingredients into a suitable oven-proof dish. Scatter the fennel seeds over the top and, if using, arrange the sausages over the top. Bake in a medium oven for about an hour. In the last 20 minutes, pour the wine into the dish. Once cooked, scatter the dish with the torn up fennel fronds set aside from earlier and serve.