Tag Archives: Fennel

FENNEL – male and female shapes

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 or the Minestra di finocchio e patate.

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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.

 


 

N’ZALATA CAPRICCIOSA – INSALATA CAPRICCIOSA (Fennel,olives etc)


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 cipolla calabrese 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.
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MINISTRA DI FINOCCHIO E PATATE (Soup – fennel and potatoes)

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).

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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).

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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.
Photo below in restaurant in Modica.
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INGREDIENTS 

potatoes 250g, cut into small cubes 

onion 1 large 

parsley,1cup of chopped 

salt and pepper 

bulb fennel 1-2 (about 600g), with green top leaves chopped and sliced very finely 

tomatoes 3 large peeled, chopped 

spaghetti 300 g of broken roughly into little pieces 

extra virgin olive oil ½ cup and some quality extra virgin to dribble on top 

bay leaves, 2 preferably fresh (optional) 

water,1 ½ litres (I use stock)

 

PROCESSES 

Traditional: 

Add all all the vegetables to the water and proceed as described above. 

Not traditional: 

Saute the onion in the oil until softened. 

Add the fennel and potatoes and stir till coated, add about 2 cups of liquid and the bay leaves . 

Cover and allow to braise very gently and without drying out for about 10 minutes. 

Add the tomatoes , parsley, seasoning and the rest of the liquid. 

Bring to the boil, add the pasta, stir , cover and allow to cook . 

Drizzle with the quality olive oil and sprinkle with fresh black pepper and serve. 

 

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TORTINO DI FINOCCHI (A flan of cooked fennel)

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.

INGREDIENTS
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).

PROCESSES
Preheat the oven to 180C
Make breadcrumbs.
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.
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