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I feel like pasta and I have - fennel

So - we are back from our mini adventure down in Inverloch about which I am still pondering on what to say. An end to being cooked for anyway and an end to fancier food - though to be honest I did weaken and have what was basically fish and chips.

So this is going to be one of those wandering around the net posts, having looked to see what is in the fridge, and then deciding what to cook for our Thank God It's Friday and we can have some wine - meal.

The photograph shows what I have to work with. Almost half of a fennel bulb which is my starting point. Some home-grown tomatoes gifted to me by my friend Monika, a small piece of leftover cooked chicken, some leftover bocconcini - still fresh enough to use, a tiny bit of chicken stock, half a lemon and some potatoes. The potatoes don't fit with what I have in mind. They will have to wait for another fridge raid meal.

Before I started my net ramblings I had mused on what to do as I lay in bed, slowly waking up, in the morning. Long, long ago I made some braised fennel - I think it was this recipe for Fenouil à la Niçoise by Richard Olney in my favourite Provence the Beautiful Cookbook. I vaguely remember it taking a long time but it was pretty simple - fennel, olive oil, garlic and white wine - but it was superb. I was very proud of it. So as I lay there I thought I could perhaps try a version that included the tomatoes, and the bit of leftover chicken stock instead of the wine. Then instead of eating it as is, I could make a chunky sauce and add it to pasta. Friday is a good day for pasta. Indeed I could slice the fennel before braising which would make it more of a sauce. Maybe some capers and possibly lemon in the sauce as well. The whole finished off with some fried breadcrumbs, parsley and lemon rind?

So today I sought confirmation of my idea, but initially got diverted into a completely alternative dish: Sicilian fennel and Parmesan dumplings in tomato sauce from Ottolenghi - mostly because of his introductory words:

"I ate some fennel dumplings in Sicily last summer that knocked my socks off. I eat a lot of dumplings, wherever and whenever I can, so it’s rare to come across any that truly surprise me, but these somehow managed to showcase their main ingredients – the fennel, currants, parmesan and tomato that are so characteristic of Sicilian cooking – while having such a depth of flavour that I was sure something else had to be going on in there."

I was intrigued and searched some more and found that somebody else (Where's the Beef) had made the Ottolenghi dumplings, which they found to be delicious, but also said:

"Even in work-from-home times, this is a weekend dish - there are quite a few different processes and the whole thing is the kind of fiddly that nobody's got the energy for on a work day."

Which rather put me off. Interestingly there was only one other recipe for this supposedly traditional Sicilian recipe - nothing from Rachel Roddy who has a Sicilian partner/husband. The one other was from Italy lover, Jamie Oliver. He calls them Roasted fennel and pine nut polpette and beautiful though they are they also look a bit of a faff. So I gave up on the detour and went back to my original searching for fennel, tomatoes and pasta. Which was a rather more productive search.

I somehow expected Nigel Slater to be a rich source here, however it seems that he is not really a fan and prefers his fennel creamy:

"Fennel is at its most successful when used sparingly, and with its more brutish aniseed character calmed by lemon juice, cream or yogurt. Slicing the bulb too thickly produces an unpleasantly strong note that can dominate any other ingredient. A little goes a long way."

And it is indeed one of those ingredients that people either like or don't I think. Personally I love it any which way but didn't really encounter it until relatively late in life. The most vivid memory I have of it is as an addition to Elizabeth David's Carbonnade Nïmoise. It just seemed to go so well with the lamb.

However, I did find lots of people pairing fennel with tomatoes, and also a smaller group who then added it to pasta. Most were fairly normal pairings wherein the fennel was sautéed or braised with the tomato and various other things, some added other things like sausages - very popular, or fish which is what made me think of the chicken when I saw it in the fridge. Some added sweet things like honey or maple syrup. Preserved lemon popped up every now and then, and also balsamic vinegar. One person added sun-dried tomatoes to the tomatoes. The capers that I had pondered on were occasionally added too, but not often the lemon. So maybe I'll just save that for the breadcrumb mix. And no other herb was ever suggested. So I'll maybe just add a bit of parsley to the breadcrumbs but add the few fennel fronds and finely chopped stalks to the braising mixture. Indeed I could add more from the garden.

These cooks all prepared their fennel in a variety of ways, braising, frying and then braising, roasting, steaming, or even just boiling. And here I came across another detour - roast fennel as shown here and looking glorious. Not a pasta dish however, just a rather tempting side - with some lamb perhaps. It comes from a website called Every Last Bite. And it was pretty simple.

Some sliced it thin, some roasted it or braised it in wedges, some then chopped it or even puréed it. There was quite a variety, so here are some of the tomatoey ones: Zesty fennel and cherry tomato pasta/Monday Dreams; Rich fennel spaghetti/Bosh!; Roasted tomato and fennel with tagliatelle/Kerry Saretsky/Serious Eats. Alison Roman's Fresh tomato and fennel pasta, doesn't really belong here because the fennel component is seeds, but I'm grouping it here because of the tomatoes and I'm ignoring all the dishes of fennel and tomato without pasta, which probably could have been turned into a pasta sauce:

Then there were some very tempting outliers which either added or subtracted a crucial ingredient: Melted fennel pasta/Amelia Rampe/Bon Appétit; Sicilian pasta with swordfish, fennel, mint and breadcrumbs/French Revolution Blog; Angela Hartnett's Rigatoni with sausage and fennel - which is where I got the idea of using up my bocconcini.

I could then have been distracted by all the fennel and sausage pastas, and maybe I should indeed do something on that some time. But I called it a day and decided to write the post, all the time wondering what I would actually do myself. Could I even slip a piece of that Parmesan rind into the braising fennel and tomato? Because I think that's what I shall do - braise with the tomatoes and chicken stock and lots of garlic, maybe some sun-dried tomatoes too for the extra richness. And I think capers - not the sweeteners. I'll try and remember to take a picture so that I can report back.

And here's a nice little thing about fennel - I actually started with the idea of talking about what to do with the stalks:

"It was in hollow stalks of wild fennel that Prometheus is said to have hidden the fire he stole from the gods, and by giving it to the human race, he raised them from their state of brutish ignorance." Rachel Roddy

And it's sort of true - well about the fennel and fire:

"The myth of Prometheus stealing fire, concealing it in a hollow fennel stalk to bring it to mankind sounds like a silly story until you realize that dry, hollow stalks of this nature are actually used in the ignition of primitive fire using the ancient technique of hand drilling, which creates the fire starting ember. Just one example of the truth of the history of mankind hidden in plain sight in an ancient story." Magnus Opus/Facebook

Fennel stalks are often placed under fish which is either baked or barbecued - especially in France. I shall return to fennel stalks some time.

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Mar 02
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Well your fennel and chicken dish was delicious... a "please can we have that again" sort of dish, which we had last night before Abby and her Dad came in their Tesla (Abby driving!). We had dessert with them, a wonderful puffed pastry tart with fruit on top - baked in the oven. And 4 serves thereof, even though we didn't know they were coming when you cooked the tart. Now that's brilliant cooking for you!

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