I love mussels: they are just so quick to cook, sustainable, economical and so flavourful. By using different herbs and adding a variety of ingredients you can vary the looks and taste of mussels and have a new dish every time. Mussels are called cozze in Italian.
Mussels or vongole (pipis or cockles) cooked with pulses (usually chickpeas or cannellini or lima beans) feature in many cuisines – Italian, Moroccan, French, Spanish and Greek and there are likely to be more examples. Each cuisine may have a few variations: as an Italian I use parsley, the French recipes may suggest using thyme, Moroccans may add harissa and the Spaniards may add chorizo. Fennel is in season and its aniseed, liquorice -like flavour compliments the taste of any seafood.
I also like to accentuate the taste of the fennel by adding 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds or instead of the wine, using one of the anise flavoured alcoholic drinks, like Ricard, Pastis or Pernod (French) or Raki (Turkey). Ouzo (Greek) and Sambuca (Italian) are sweeter in taste (contain sugar) so unless you particularly like sweetness do not use too much. I have mentioned the most popular of the alcoholic beverages, but there are more in other countries.
I use a lot of wine or alcohol in my cooking but this is not compulsory. I do not use salt when I cook mussels as they release their own liquid and this is usually sufficiently salty.
1 k mussels, scrubbed and beards removed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup white wine or ½ cup of anise flavoured alcohol and ½ cup of water or if you have cooked the chickpeas yourself, use the liquid
1 bulb fennel or 3 stalks of young celery
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
2-3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 cups of cooked chickpeas (home cooked or canned)
pepper or chilli flakes
Prepare the fennel: remove the tough outer leaves, slice the fennel and chop finely any of the fronds. Because I prefer to have some crunch in the fennel I slice it into medium -thin slices, but if you prefer it to be soft, slice it very thinly. Substitute the fennel with celery if you prefer.
Use a heavy bottomed large saucepan with a tight fitting lid, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil and sauté the garlic, sliced fennel and fennel fronds.
Add chickpeas, parsley, pepper or chilli flakes to taste and 1 cup of liquid – either wine or anise flavoured alcohol and water – and bring to the boil.
Add mussels, cover and cook until they open.
Serve with the broth. Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil on top. Use bread to mop up the juices.
Found this bunch of wild asparagus at Marché Central de Tunis and was very excited. I have eaten wild asparagus in Sicily but only on a few occasions because I have not always visited Sicily in spring. It is a spring vegetable and obviously the wild asparagus is appreciated in Tunis as well. Wild asparagus all over Sicily.
Next in Sicily and we found plants on our climb up La Rocca in Cefalu.
We then found plants growing in the garden at our B&B in Cefalu and took photos of the two types of plants which produce the wild asparagus shoots; although they are coming to the end of their season these plants had shoots.
To our delight we ate some where we stayed in the Agruturismo in the Madonie Mountains. It was cooked in a frittata and the shoots appeared again in a pasta dish with sausages made from the special, breed of pork only found in the Madonie and the Nebrodi mountains.(Slow Food)
For those of you who have not eaten wild asparagus:
The shoots taste slightly bitter. They are the shoots of a very stubborn plant with sharp and needle-like leaves and the asparagus are difficult to pick.
You need to wash the shoots well, snap any of the woody ends just to the point at which the stalk bends and discard the very woody bottom. Cook the top part of the asparagus stalks in salted water and then use in the frittata or as an ingredient in the pasta. If they are not woody their tender tips are great raw.
I dressed Tunis asparagus with olive oil and lemon juice.
There was also much fennel around in Tunis and braised some in a little butter and a dash of red wine vinegar. It is not necessarily the way I normally cook it but one makes do when one is away and staying in an apartment and it did taste good.
Fennel is still looking really good at the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne.
Select the round specimens when you can – these are known as the male bulbs. The female ones are flatter and reputed to be not as tasty because their energy is going into sprouting and going to seed – this is why they are not as round.
Usually when I make caponata I fry the vegetables separately to best preserve the flavour of the individual vegetables and accommodate the different cooking time each vegetable needs, but because the celery and fennel have similar textures I generally cook them at the same time.
All caponate (plural) have an essential agro-dolce (sweet and sour) sauce that makes caponata what it is.
1 medium sized fennel
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 tender celery stalk and some pale green leaves, finely chopped
¼ cup green olives, pitted and sliced
¼ cup capers (if salted, rinsed and soaked)
1 ripe tomato, peeled and chopped (or canned)
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbs wine vinegar, white
salt and pepper to taste
Preparethe fennel: Remove any outer layers of the fennel that look damaged, trim the base and discard. Keep any young, soft fennel fronds to add to the caponata. Slice the fennel bulbs in half vertically and then into quarters. Continue to cut the fennel into thin slices keeping them attached at the bottom. Place extra virgin olive oil in the pan and when it is hot add the onion, fennel and celery and sauté until they begin to colour. Add the olives, capers, tomato and salt. Cover and simmer gently until the fennel has softened (10-15 mins). Remove the contents from the pan, add sugar to the same pan and stir over medium heat, When it begins to caramelize add the vinegar and evaporate. This is the essential agro-dolce (sweet and sour) sauce. Return all the contents back into the pan and stir through.
Blood oranges are very much in vogue. A few years ago I could only buy them from a couple of stalls at the Queen Victoria Market but now they appear to be quite common.
Fennel bulbs have also become less exotic and this vegetable and above fruit combined make a great salad; both this vegetable and citrus fruit have been around for a very long time in Sicily.
I am not shy about presenting a salad as a side for a hot or cold main, but I always provide each guest with a separate plate for this contorno.
INGREDIENTS fennel bulbs, 2 medium-sized (400- 500g approx.) extra-virgin olive oil, ½ cup salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste blood oranges, 2-3
parsley, ½ cup finely cut
PROCESSES Remove any outer layers of the fennel which look damaged, trim the base and top and discard. Keep any young, soft fennel fronds to add to the salad. Slice the fennel bulbs in half vertically and then continue to cut the fennels into thin slices.
Cut off the peel and pith of the oranges (use a sharp knife) then slice the orange crosswise into thin slices.
Combine the oranges with the fennel.
Mix olive oil, salt and pepper in a container and dress the salad.
Although fennel bulbs may look similar in shape there are two differently shaped bulbs and each is identified by its sex – the round are known as the maschi (the male fennel) and the slightly flattened shapes are the femmine (females). See post : Fennel – Male and female shapes
Many associate eating soups mostly in winter, but this is not the case in my household. Although the soups I prepare in summer may not be as hearty as my winter ones, they will often contain pulses.
I enjoy eating chickpeas, borlotti, cannellini beans or lentils in soups but I also enjoy them as salads.
And this is what brings me (yet again) to writing about wild fennel – I find a bowl of any of the above pulses presented in their broth and flavoured with wild fennel very refreshing. The extra virgin olive oil drizzled on top of the soup when it is presented to the table, makes the soup even more aromatic.
I never eat soup piping hot (Australia inherited this custom from the English) and in summer I present my soup cooler still.
This wild fennel plant and several other large bushes of wild fennel grow not very far from where I live, (in the centre of Melbourne). And this is where I do a little foraging. These plants are very robust and persistent and supply me with either foliage or seeds during the year (I know I need to be very careful about not picking plants that have been sprayed).
There are no seeds on this plant yet, but as the weather gets hotter there will be bright yellow flower heads which then will turn into dry, hard, brown seeds in late summer – I will be back to collect these and together with some dry oregano, chilli flakes and extra virgin olive oil, I will marinate this year’s black olives which are still in their brine.
The softer, younger foliage is also excellent used as a herb, raw in salads or when cooking fish.
Unlike the commercial bulb fennel, wild fennel does not have a bulb – the young shoots are used. In the photo below you can see the shoots within the larger foliage – they are the denser looking part of the two sprigs below; usually they are a lighter colour. When I collect the fennel, to keep the young shoots fresh I also collect the larger stem, where they are embedded. I find the stalks and the more mature, green fronds too tough to eat and the flavour too intense.
It is necessary to soak the beans (or chickpeas) overnight, and although it is said that the lentils will not need soaking, I like to soak them for about an hour beforehand. Some cooks discard the soaking water – it is a common belief that changing the water will help to reduce the flatulence suffered when eating pulses. Also reputed to help is the addition of a pinch of fennel seeds (other countries use dill and caraway) therefore adding fresh fennel to this soup should function in the same way.
For this soup, I am using chickpeas.
carrots, 2, left whole
garlic, 2- 3 cloves, squashed
wild fennel, 3-5 young shoots, left whole
salt, to taste
extra virgin olive oil, ½ cup (or more to taste)
Soak chickpeas in cold water overnight – they will swell so it is important to put them in plenty of water.
Drain the water and change it (optional) Place sufficient water to cover the pulses and add carrots, a little extra virgin olive oil, garlic cloves and fennel (this will be the broth).
Bring the pulses to the boil. Cook the pulses until soft but preferably still whole. If using lentils they will cook quickly, but the other pulses may take 20– 30 mins. Add salt to taste.
Remove the carrot and some of the fennel. Cut up the fennel that you choose to eat and return it to the soup. Cool to desired temperature.
Ladle into bowls. Add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and serve.
Other recipes using wild fennel can be found in previous posts.
I want to make the most of the fennel while it is in season and have chosen a very simple fish dish using wild caught barramundi.
Rosemary is one of the few herbs which does well in winter and compliments the sweetness of the fennel.
Those of you who shop at the Queen Victoria Market (Melbourne) may recognise the face of the Happy Tuna vendor where I always buy my fish (see earlier post: Seafood – where I buy my sustainable fish ).
One of my favourite fish is wild caught barramundi, often on sale at this stall.
Barramundi is an Aboriginal word meaning river fish with large scales. It can be a truly wonderful, tasting fish and is extremely versatile (it has medium to firm texture and medium oiliness).
Most of the barramundi in Australia is farmed both in sea aquaculture farms and in fully-closed systems in land-based ponds. Some is imported from fisheries and aquaculture farms in Asia. But there are marked differences in taste between fish that has been wild-caught, grown in sea-cages or in land based systems. Of equal importance to me is whether I am buying a fish that is sustainable. The methods of farming and fishing determine the degree of sustainability and the cost.
The David Suzuki Foundation has adopted the definition of sustainable seafood as:
‘Originating from sources, whether fished or farmed that can maintain or increase production in the long term without jeopardizing the structure or function of affected ecosystems’.
Not all fish vendors label the fish to inform consumers of the sources, and for a clearer conscience and better tasting fish, it is important to ask about its source.
For all barramundi grown in sea-cages or imported from fisheries and aquaculture farms in Asia – say no.
Some fully-closed systems (land-based ponds and small-scale tank or pond aquaculture), are sustainable (better choice) but unfortunately I find the fish from land-based aquaculture lacking in character and in texture, and I never buy it.
A small proportion of barramundi are wild-caught and as you’d expect, it is the most expensive, but in my opinion this is by far the better tasting fish. I particularly like the gelatinous skin, which is very distinctive in the wild-caught fish. The wild caught barramundi are from Queensland and the Northern Territory and legislation in each state imposes closures during certain seasons.
Wild-caught barramundi, especially in small-scale operations, is a better alternative, but in the Australian Marine Conservation Society publication it is (think twice). Some accredited, line wild-caught barramundi is available and is (better choice).
My fish vendor told me that unlike the species grown in cages, the wild caught barramundi has a yellowish tail (look at the photo).
PESCE CON FINOCCHI
I never go to the market to buy one specific type of fish and for this particular dish there are other fish apart from burramundi which can be used.
Use small whole fish or fillets of the following fish: garfish, whiting and flathead, bream, trevally and Murray cod (great if you can get it) are (better choice).
Blue-eye trevalla, snapper and mackerel (think twice) are also suitable. Blue-eye travella and snapper are (better choice) if line caught.
Fillets of fish benefit from scoring (as do whole fish) – slash the side of the fish that formerly had the skin – a thin layer of membrane remains, and unless it is scored, it can curl during cooking.
fish, (estimate 1-1.2 kg for 6 people)
fennel, 2 large
water or white wine, 1 cup
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup
salt and freshly ground pepper,
rosemary, fresh sprigs
Clean the fish: scale, gut and wipe dry (my fish vendor always does this for me). Use a sharp knife to make shallow cuts in the outside of the whole fish – slash the fish but leave whole This helps the seasonings and flavours of marinade (herbs, oil etc.) to penetrate the flesh. The only time I do not score the skin is when I bake a fish in salt crust because I do not want the salt to enter into the flesh.
Insert little sprigs of rosemary in the slashes, pour on a little oil, cover and set aside.
Prepare the fennel:
Remove the fennel tops from the bulbs and discard. Trim away any bruised or discoloured portion of the bulbs. Cut the bulbs length-wise (vertically) into thin slices less than 1cm thick.
Add the sliced fennel to a pan with hot olive oil and sauté for 5-10 minutes before adding seasoning and about a cup of water or wine.
Cover the pan and cook on a low to medium heat for about 20 minutes or until the fennel is wilted and soft. You may need to add a little more liquid as it cooks.
Increase the heat to evaporate any liquid left in the pan – this will result with the fennel cooking in the left over oil and turning a deep gold colour.
Add freshly ground pepper, turn the heat down to medium and push the fennel to one side to make room for the fish in the pan.
Put the fish in the pan, sprinkle with a little more salt and freshly ground pepper, and spoon some of the oil in the pan over it (or add a splash of fresh, extra virgin olive oil).
Add more rosemary, cover and cook for 6-7 minutes, turn the fish once and baste again. Cook for another few minutes or so, depending on the thickness of the fish.
Transfer the fish to a serving dish, remove the rosemary and place the fennel and juices over the fish and serve.
The barramundi – a highly prized source of food for Aboriginal Australians – plays a large part in Dreamtime mythology. There are several Aboriginal legends about barramundi as told by the different tribes in the Northern Territory. This is one of them.
How the barramundi came to have spines on its back.
This is a very moving legend and tells of two young lovers. The girl was betrothed to an older man (according to traditional law) and so they escaped while the tribe was engaged in a corroboree. The young couple took many spears to use on their pursuers while they ran through the countryside to the sea and succeeded in eluding them for a long time, but eventually ran out of spears. Knowing that their followers would spear them, they threw themselves into the sea, where they turned themselves into barramundi. Some of the spears, however, struck them as they fell, and that is how the barramundi comes to have spines on its back.
Although fennel bulbs may look similar in shape there are two differently shaped bulbs and each is identified by its sex (or so the Sicilians and southern Italians say) – the round are known as the maschi (the male fennel) and the slightly flattened shapes are the femmine (females).
My father always said that the round shaped fennels are the best tasting ones and this is the shape of fennel I always buy, except maybe at the end of the season when the flat, elongated bulbs of fennel become much more common. The shape differences may be subtle, but the taste of the round ones is superior. This may be because the flatter bulbs are getting ready to sprout (hence, allocated the female gender) and therefore their flavour may be dissipated.
Recently, I began to doubt my conviction. I had read that the females are the round fennel bulbs and so last Saturday morning I made a point of buying my fennel from my Italian stall holder at the Queen Victoria Market (I only purchase my fennel from one of the four stalls that sell the best fennel – two of these stalls are Asian). Just to make sure, I then asked several other Italian stallholders about male and female shapes.
Exactly right. I was very happy to have my viewpoint confirmed; for many years I have been advising many others about fennel (not only friends, but also stall holders and people who are selecting bulbs for purchasing). Besides, how could my father be so wrong? (I never appreciated his folklore as a teenager, but as an adult I began to make sense of his world – he grew up in Sicily and moved to Trieste as a seventeen-year old during the war. There he met my mother).
Bottom photos show the characteristic shapes of male and female fennel bulbs.
A friend of mine who grows fennel in her wonderful Adelaide Hills garden tells me how the plant at the very end of the growing season produces some very flat bulbs, which never mature. After speaking to her about this (last year) I saw some bunches of these small flat bulbs for sale in one of the stalls at the Queen Victoria Melbourne Market. I spoke to the vendor who said that rather than wasting them he thought that he would bunch them and try to sell them. When I saw him the following week, he said that they were not a huge success. These may one day become marketable and could be used as a substitute for making Pasta con le sarde ortheMinestra di finocchio e patate.
What happens to the flat shaped bulbs of fennel in Italy?
If you have a look at all my photos of fennel in this blog taken in Italy, you will see that they are all round in shape. I do not know what happens to the flat ones, but I have never seen them for sale. Maybe these are removed when young? My father always removed some of his fruit crop when the fruit had just formed. This allowed the remaining fruit to grow big.
There are many recipes for how to use fennel on my blog ( too many to list here). Key in fennel in the search button.
This is a very simple and colourful salad, full of different flavours and it includes fennel –very prolific and in season in Australia at the moment. I always find this vegetable very refreshing and cleansing.
Capricciosa means whimsical or fanciful in Italian and the salad lives up to its name. I found this salad in a book about Sicilian recipes that I bought at a railway station. It is listed as N’ZALATA CRAPICIOSA – a misprint, surely? But capricious to the end!
INGREDIENTS and PROCESSES
This salad consists of finely sliced fennel, chopped green olives, capers and red salad onion. In Italy this type of onion is called cipollacalabrese or cipolla Tropea. The name is appropriate – it grows extensively in Calabria and is a dominant ingredient in Calabrese cooking.
Red onions do not just grow in the South of Italy, I also found fresh red onions (sold with their green tops) all over Tuscany and Rome at the end of last year. (The photo was taken in the Greve market, held each Saturday morning in the Piazza where we were staying in December 2008).
Onions, like all vegetables are seasonal. As well as using fresh onions raw in salads, Sicilians also use mature ones (those with dry skin) but usually they “sweeten” them first.
My father always did this, especially for his famous tomato salads. Raw onions are first sliced and then sprinkled with salt (some soak them in cold, salted water) for about 20 minutes – use a colander. The onions are then squeezed to remove the excess liquid and the strong flavour (my father wore his glasses for this process); he also quickly rinsed the onions at the end.
As a variation, for colour and flavour I have used some chopped finely fennel fonds and sometimes finely chopped mint for extra zing.
For the dressing use quality extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and a dash of vinegar. Dress and toss the salad just before serving.
Several of my friends are beginning to discover and appreciate the taste of fennel. It is prolific at present in Melbourne and most refreshing eaten raw. It can be cooked – braised, baked, made into a tortino (see recipe in blog tortino di finocchio) and as in this recipe, made into a soup (not a very common way to cook fennel).
Traditionally this recipe should be made with wild fennel and this is how I first tasted this soup.Obviously if this ingredient is not close by, the bulb can be used. If you can collect some wild fennel (make sure it looks healthy, see recipe in blog pasta con le sarde), experiment with this recipe and use both the wild and the cultivated bulb with some of its tender fronds and stalks (choose round, shiny bulbs, as in photo taken in the market of Syracuse).
It is one of the simplest soups to make and when it was first made for me (using wild fennel) all of the vegetables went into a pot with the water and once softened, broken spaghetti were added – soup without pasta is rarely presented. The broken spaghetti were once the way to use them up, by all means use some short, small sout pasta shape.
I am always amazed how Sicilian soups cooked so simply can be so appetising. My relative presented the minestra with a drizzle of the very flavourful oil given to her by a relative in Noto. Maybe the oil is the secret ingredient! Boiled vegetables cooked this way and presented with the water is considered rinfrescante, calming and soothing for the digestive system and very common as the evening meal (Sicilians still eat their main meal at lunch time).
I have intensified the flavours by varying the method of cooking and I sauté the vegetables before adding the liquid, this being a common way to make soup in the north of Italy. I also like to add stock instead of water, but when I cook this version it is no longer traditionally Sicilian.
I also found a version of a recipe for maccu (a very Sicilian soup) made in the Madonie which is very similar but uses wild fennel , dried broadbeans (soaked overnight and peeled) and no potato. The dried broadbeans add a very different taste and as they are floury, also thicken the soup as does the potato.
I keep on seeing stunted specimens of fennel for sale in stalls at the Queen Victoria Market (Australia).
Where are they coming from at this time of year? One of the stall holders thought it was from Victoria or maybe Tasmania because it can still be cold there in certain parts at this time of year (January).
I am always amazed how people still want to buy produce which is well out of season. One such customer who was standing next to me at one of the stalls, bought some of these weedy specimens – small, dull and flat (late in the season with evidence of going to seed) and not very suitable for eating raw.
(Good specimens of fennel. The photo was taken at the Saturday morning street market in Greve, Tuscany in December 2008.).
It is easy to strike up a conversation while standing in front of a stall and the buyer was surprised when I told her that fennel can also be cooked.
My grandmother Maria (from Catania, Sicily) was fond of making a fennel tortino.
A torta in Italian is a torte or a cake, but it can also be a savoury cake, flan or pie. It is usually made of vegetables and partially baked. It may include pastry.
The ino as the ending in tortino implies that it is smaller, but this is not always the case. I have seen similar dishes called a sformato or a pasticcio and in Sicilian a turticedda. All this can be very confusing for a non-Italian, as basically they are the same things.
This tortino is made with fennel. Being an old Sicilian recipe breadcrumbs are used to thicken the vegetable dish rather than béchamel (white sauce) or eggs found in the modern recipes. Similar recipes are found all over Italy and if it is made in the the north, butter instead of oil and parmesan cheese rather than pecorino cheese are commonly used.
This dish is very versatile. I have presented it hot and cold, as a contorno (side vegetable dish) and as an antipasto. The fennel can be cooked beforehand and left until you are ready to assemble the dish or alternatively the tortino can be prepared and stored in the fridge (for 1-2 days).
The following recipe is for 6-8 people.
fennel bulbs, (to weigh 1k)
onion, 1 large, finely sliced
parsley, 1 cup, chopped finely
oregano, dried, ½ tablespoon.
garlic, 2 cloves finely chopped
pecorino, 1 cup grated
extra virgin olive oil, about ¾ cup to sauté the fennel and some more to coat the oven dish and to drizzle on top of the ingredients.
salt and pepper,
coarse breadcrumbs, about 2 cups made from 1-3 day old, quality bread. This will be used to scatter over the sides and bottom of the oven dish and between the layers of fennel.
Optional – Use a little wine or stock, rather than water, to add to the fennel as it cooks (modern rather than traditional).
Preheat the oven to 180C
Slice the fennel lengthwise and thinly. If possible add the soft green fonts chopped finely, as these will add colour and flavour.
Sauté the onion in the extra virgin olive oil, then add the fennel until it is slightly softened and coloured.
Add salt and pepper. You may need to splash a little water or a little white wine to the vegetables and cover them with a lid until they begin to soften.
Select an oven dish, which will accommodate all of your ingredients (I use a pan which is about 10 cm deep).
Oil a baking dish (I use glass or ceramic ). Lard instead of olive oil was common in many of the older traditional recipes.
Sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs over the greased surface of the baking dish (be generous, as this process will prevent total sticking of the ingredients).
Mix the remaining breadcrumbs with the parsley, grated cheese and garlic. Begin with a layer of the fennel, then the breadcrumb mixture and repeat until you have used up all of the ingredients and you have at least 4 layers. Finish off with the bread mixture.
Compress the layers with your hands and top with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil .
Cover with a heavy lid or a layer of foil with a weight on top so as to keep all of the layers compressed. To prevent sticking, my Sicilian grandmother used an ovenproof, terracotta plate as the weight.
Place the dish into a preheated oven 180 C for about 40-50 mins.
Check to see if the fennel is soft (cooked.) If it is not cooked or if it appears too dry add a little more water (or wine or stock). Cover and return to the oven until it is cooked.
Remove the cover, drizzle with more extra virgin olive oil and bake for a further 10 minutes until it has a golden crust and the liquid has evaporated.
The tortino should resemble a moist cake and should slice easily.