Falsetti: Let fennel whisk you away from winter
A few weeks ago as I was in the supermarket produce section, a lost-looking young man stared blankly at the vegetables. He said his mother had instructed him to buy “fentanyl” for a dish she was going to make, and he was drawing a blank.
After some quick mental processing, I pointed him toward a stack of fennel in the vegetable case.
Although very popular in the Mediterranean regions of Italy and France, fennel is not widely known locally. There are actually two types of fennel. One is grown for its seeds and its slightly anise flavored leaves. In Indian restaurants, the seeds are often served after dinner as a breath sweetener and aid to digestion. Fennel seeds are the most prominent taste in Italian sausages. The leaves are especially good in tomato-based sauces.
The other type, widely known as Florence fennel, is purchased for cooking. It has a white or pale green bulb, celery-like stalks and feathery green leaves. Fennel can be eaten raw or cooked. Sliced thin in salads, it has a crunchy, slightly sweet taste. The bulb can be steamed, roasted or sauteed and added to soups or casseroles.
Winter and autumn are the peak growing season for fennel. When buying, look for firm white bulbs without any discoloration. The fronds should be bright green and look fresh.
My favorite fennel dish is a Sicilian-inspired pasta dish. With the sweet anise-laced overtones and the addition of pine nuts and currants, you can imagine yourself on a sunny Mediterranean beach even in the dead of winter.
Pasta with Fennel
1 fennel bulb with fronds
1 pound spaghetti
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1/4 teaspoon saffron
1/4 cup hot water
2 tablespoons currants
1 tablespoon pine nuts
Pecorino or Parmesan cheese, for serving
Put on a large pot of water to boil. Scrub the fennel bulb, cut away the base and stalks, and discard the base. Save the stalks for making stock. Wash the fronds in several changes of water to clean. Chop roughly and set aside. Boil the fennel bulb about 15 minutes or until it can be pierced with the tip of a knife. Remove the fennel bulb with a slotted spoon, reserving the water to cook the pasta.
Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan over low heat. Saute the onion and fennel fronds until the onion is soft, about 8 minutes. Soak the saffron in hot water. Dice the cooked fennel bulb, and add it along with the saffron water to the pan with onions. Cook until the fennel is golden. Add the currants and pine nuts. If the mixture is dry, add one cup of the pasta cooking water. Toss the pasta with the fennel mixture and remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Serve with grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese.
— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section. Reach her with questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.