If you'd like to acquire some fennel - for the first time or the 1,000th - to star in a nice autumnal dish, you don't have to do it like Giovanni Mauro does. You can, after all, get it in the produce section of your supermarket.
Mauro, owner of Old School Pizzeria on Craig Road, former owner of Nora's Osteria and a leader in the local Slow Food movement, goes to Southern California every fall (and maybe during the "little pop-up" in the spring), to forage for wild fennel.
"Fennel is by far my absolutely favorite vegetable," Mauro said. "I just love the texture, I love the freshness that it provides, I love the vibrant flavors."
Mauro said he looks for wild fennel in Orange County, in the hills and near the coast.
"It's everywhere," he said.
He uses it in a classic dish called pasta con sarde, or pasta with sardines.
"It's obligatory that one uses wild fennel," he said, as well as currants, pine nuts, "a very, very little saffron" and, of course, sardines.
"It's very, very traditional of Palermo," he said. "It is a recipe that's as old as spaghetti."
Mauro said just the fronds are used in the dish.
"The wild one has almost like a bitter overtone, like arugula or radicchio," he said. "That slight bitter edge makes it just wonderful."
And he's quick to point out that while it's not widely known, there are numerous types of fennel.
"It's very diffused in Sicily," he said. "I'm used to using different fennels for different things."
When using domestic fennel, Mauro likes to cut the bulbs in fairly large pieces.
"A lot of folks will shave fennel to put in a salad," he said. "Although the flavor remains, the texture is completely gone when you do that. I love having it almost in wedges, so it gives a contrast."
One of Mauro's favorite salads is tomato, cucumbers, fennel and onion, with the fennel and onion cut in pieces of about the same size.
"There are four completely contrasting flavors and textures," he said of the salad.
And he differentiates among the types of domestic fennel available.
"As a Sicilian, the round bulbs you always use raw," he said. "The Roman, the skinnier, taller ones, those you use for cooking."
And then, he said, there's the semi-wild bronze fennel, of which mostly the fronds are used in the style of any other herb.
In case you haven't figured it out by now, fennel tends to be beloved of Italians and used liberally in Italian cuisine.
"I love to cook with fennel," said Annie Payton, owner of Annie's Gourmet Italian in Henderson.
She uses fresh fennel in tortellini, sauteed with mushrooms and fresh spinach with her Alfredo sauce over it.
She also uses fennel seed, a critical ingredient in Italian sausage.
Lou Sassetti, executive chef of Brio Tuscan Grille at Town Square, uses fennel seed as well, in his sausage peperonata pomodoro.
"I personally love it," Sassetti said. "I like the flavor profile. It's best released by heating it up with a little oil before you add other ingredients. It really permeates."
Whether seed, frond or bulb, fennel has a distinctive flavor.
"It's unique and a little bit like an anisette," Payton said. "It kind of reminds me of our old-school Italian meals, where we had anisette after dinner."
"It holds a lot of water, so it's firm," Mauro said. "As you bite down, there's a beautiful crunch, similar to celery. But it has so much water in it that literally the oils and the juice just have a slight explosion. And so the mouth gets just this wonderful freshness that no other vegetable does. It just coats everything. You can smell it in your mouth.
RICOTTA AND FONTINA-STUFFED SHELLS WITH FENNEL AND RADICCHIO
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds fennel bulbs, thinly sliced
1 medium sweet onion, thinly sliced
2 medium heads of radicchio (10 ounces total), chopped
12 ounces jumbo shells
2 cups fresh ricotta cheese
6 ounces Italian fontina cheese, shredded (1½ cups)
¼ cup chopped parsley
Freshly ground pepper
2 large eggs, beaten
3 cups homemade or purchased marinara sauce
½ cup heavy cream
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large, deep skillet, melt the butter in the oil. Add the fennel and onion and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 15 minutes; add water as needed to keep the vegetables from scorching. Add the radicchio and cook until very soft, about 10 minutes, adding water as needed. Scrape the vegetables into a bowl and let cool.
Meanwhile, in a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain and cool under running water. Pat the shells dry.
Fold the ricotta, 1 cup of the fontina and the parsley into the vegetables and season with salt and pepper. Stir in the eggs.
In another bowl, mix the marinara sauce with the heavy cream. Pour 1½ cups into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Stuff each shell with a slightly rounded tablespoon of the filling and nestle the shells in the sauce as close together as possible. Drizzle 1 cup of the remaining sauce on top and sprinkle with the remaining ½ cup of Fontina.
Bake the shells for about 40 minutes, until golden. Let rest for 15 minutes. Warm the remaining sauce and serve on the side.
- Recipe from Food & Wine magazine
PORK TENDERLOIN WITH SAUTEED ONIONS AND FENNEL AND FENNEL CREAM
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons fennel seeds, crushed (divided use)
2 medium fennel bulbs, quartered, cored, thinly sliced (fronds reserved)
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 12-ounce pork tenderloins, trimmed, each cut crosswise in half
3 large shallots, minced
½ cup dry white wine
1½ cups canned low-salt chicken broth
½ cup whipping cream
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 teaspoon crushed fennel seeds and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Reduce heat to medium-low. Stir in sliced fennel and onion and saute until vegetables are very tender and caramelized, about 40 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon minced garlic and saute until tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. (Fennel mixture can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in another heavy large skillet over high heat. Season pork tenderloins with salt and pepper. Add pork to skillet; cook until brown on all sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer pork to baking sheet; reserve drippings in skillet. Roast pork until thermometer inserted into center registers 150 degrees, about 5 minutes. Remove pork from oven; cover with foil and keep warm.
Meanwhile, add minced shallots and remaining 1 teaspoon crushed fennel seeds and 1 tablespoon garlic to skillet with drippings and saute over medium heat until shallots are tender, about 2 minutes. Increase heat to high. Add white wine and boil until liquid is reduced to glaze, about 2 minutes. Add chicken broth and whipping cream and boil until reduced to sauce consistency, whisking often, about 5 minutes. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper.
Rewarm fennel mixture over medium heat until heated through. Divide fennel mixture among 4 plates. Cut pork into ½-inch-thick rounds. Arrange pork atop fennel. Spoon sauce over pork. Garnish with fennel fronds.
- Recipe from Bon Appetit magazine
ROASTED BEET, FENNEL AND WALNUT SALAD
1½ teaspoons canola oil
2 (1¼-pound) fennel bulbs with stalks
2 cups sliced Belgian endive (about 2 small heads)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts, toasted
1 (6-ounce) package fresh spinach (about 8 cups)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon grated orange rind
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
To prepare salad, leave root and 1 inch of stem on beets; scrub with a vegetable brush. Peel and cut beets into ½-inch-thick wedges. Place beets on a jelly-roll pan. Drizzle with canola oil; toss well to coat. Bake for 45 minutes or until beets are tender, stirring every 20 minutes.
Trim the tough outer leaves from fennel; mince feathery fronds to measure 2 tablespoons. Remove and discard stalks. Cut fennel bulbs in half lengthwise; discard cores. Cut the bulbs into ¼-inch slices. Combine fennel slices, endive and next four ingredients in a large bowl; toss gently.
To prepare dressing, combine vinegar and remaining ingredients, stirring well with a whisk. Drizzle dressing mixture over fennel mixture. Add beets to bowl; toss to combine. Sprinkle with chopped fennel fronds. Serve immediately.
- Recipe from Cooking Light magazine
CHICKEN MILANESE WITH TOMATO AND FENNEL SAUCE
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs, beaten
1¼ cups plain bread crumbs
2/3 cup grated Parmesan
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
4 (6 to 8-ounce) boneless and skinless chicken breasts, tenderloins removed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and thinly sliced
2½ cups (12 ounces) cherry tomatoes, halved
¼ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
½ cup mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
For the chicken: Put an oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 150 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a wire rack.
Using three wide, shallow bowls, add the flour to one, the eggs to another and in the third bowl combine the bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, basil and thyme.
On a work surface, put the chicken between two pieces of plastic wrap. Using a meat mallet, lightly pound the chicken until approximately ¼- to ½-inch thick. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour to coat lightly, then dip into the beaten eggs, allowing the excess egg to drip off. Coat the chicken with the bread crumb mixture, pressing gently to adhere.
In a large, nonstick saute pan, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Add two pieces of the breaded chicken and cook until light golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Transfer the chicken to the prepared baking sheet and keep warm in the oven. Repeat with the remaining chicken. Reserve the cooking juices in the saute pan.
For the sauce: Using the same saute pan, add the olive oil to the reserved cooking juices and heat over medium heat. Add the fennel and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, about 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in the cherry tomatoes, ¼ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, garlic and thyme. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes until the tomatoes are tender. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the mascarpone cheese and stir until the mixture is creamy. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Transfer the chicken to a serving platter and spoon the sauce over the top before serving.
Serves 4 to 6.
- Recipe from the Food Network
Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at email@example.com or 702-383-0474.