Warm, comforting fennel dishes. Plus Wine, The good mixer
Iate 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. At first I thought it must be some secret ingredient – was there a little mince in there, maybe? – but it turned out to be the way the fennel was cooked.
Eating, and cooking, as much as I do, at first I found my ignorance rather thrilling, but that soon turned to frustration when I tried to recreate those dumplings back home. I stayed none the wiser until I stumbled upon a blogpost that shone light on the subject: the trick, it turns out, is to cook the fennel until soft before mixing it with breadcrumbs (which do so much work behind the scenes in Sicilian kitchens). Cooking it right down turns fennel into something very different from the thin, raw slices we have in salads, and is just one way to show how this little bulb provides comfort and warmth as we move from one season to the next.
Quick fennel and onion chutney
I call this a chutney, although, unlike most chutneys, you serve it straight away. It’s really versatile, working as well on a cheeseboard as alongside roast pork. It keeps in the fridge for up to a week. Makes one 600ml jar.
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp fennel seeds
2 small fennel bulbs, trimmed (300g net weight), cut in half lengthways, then widthways into 1-2mm-thick slices (use a mandoline, ideally) 2 onions, peeled and thinly sliced (300g net weight)
25g soft dark brown sugar
1 lemon, peel shaved off in 3 wide strips (avoid the bitter white pith) 2 tsp urfa chilli flakes (or 1 tsp if using another variety of chilli)
2 tbsp currants
3 tbsp white-wine vinegar
In large saucepan for which you have a lid, heat the oil on a medium flame, then toast the fennel seeds, stirring, for 30 seconds, until fragrant and starting to brown. Add the fennel, onion, sugar, lemon peel, half the chilli and half a teaspoon of salt, and fry for eight to nine minutes, stirring often, until the vegetables soften. Add the currants and 350ml water, turn the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 30 minutes, stirring now and then. Take off the lid and cook for 15 minutes, stirring often, until thick and glossy. Add the vinegar and remaining chilli, and cook for a final five minutes, stirring once or twice. Leave to cool before serving.
Roast fennel with black barley and smoked haddock
Use pot barley instead, if that’s all you have. Serves four.
2 medium fennel bulbs, green stems roughly chopped, bulbs cut lengthways into 6 wedges (650g net weight)
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and black pepper 10g unsalted butter
2 banana shallots, peeled and finely chopped
5g thyme sprigs
½ tsp fennel seeds, toasted and lightly crushed
170g black (or pot) barley, rinsed 80ml white wine
600ml vegetable stock
200g smoked haddock (undyed) 5g tarragon, roughly chopped 10g parsley, roughly chopped 1 lemon, cut into 4 wedges
Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. In a bowl, toss the fennel wedges with a tablespoon of oil, half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Spread out on an oven tray lined with baking paper, and roast for 40 minutes, until soft and golden. Remove and keep somewhere warm.
Meanwhile, melt the butter and remaining tablespoon of oil in a large saute pan on a medium heat. Add the shallots, thyme, fennel stems and fennel seeds, and cook for five minutes, stirring a few times, until the shallots and fennel are soft. Stir through the barley and cook for a minute, to warm through. Add the wine, reduce for a minute, then add the stock, a half-teaspoon of salt and plenty of pepper. Bring to a boil, turn the heat to medium-low and leave to simmer for 40 minutes (25 minutes for pot barley), until the barley is almost cooked.
Ten minutes before the barley is ready, fill a medium saucepan with 300ml water. Add the haddock, put the pan on a high heat and bring to a to boil. Immediately lift the fish out of the water and set aside. Pour 150ml of the fish water into the barley and cook for about 10 minutes, until most of the water has evaporated and the barley is cooked but still has a bite.
Stir the herbs into the barley. Break the fish into big chunks, discarding the skin, add to the barley and mix through very gently. Divide between four plates and arrange the warm fennel wedges on top. Serve with a wedge of lemon.
Sicilian fennel and parmesan dumplings in tomato sauce
Make eight dumplings, to serve four as a first course.
For the dumplings
1 large fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into 0.5cm dice (400g net weight) 15g currants
20g pine nuts, roughly chopped
½ tsp fennel seeds, lightly toasted and crushed
⅛ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
2 slices sourdough, crusts removed and discarded, then blitzed to fine crumbs (80g net weight)
50g parmesan, finely grated Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
2 eggs, beaten
30g dill, finely chopped
10g basil leaves, finely chopped Salt and pepper
2 tbsp vegetable oil, to fry
For the sauce
1½ tbsp olive oil, plus 1-2 tbsp extra, to serve
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed 1 onion, peeled and cut into 0.5cm dice (150g net weight)
250g cherry tomatoes
¾ tbsp caster sugar
10g basil leaves, finely chopped, plus extra to garnish
Bring a medium pan of water to a boil, add the fennel and cook on medium-high heat for 15 minutes. Add the currants, cook for five minutes more, then strain through a fine sieve and leave to cool. Transfer the fennel and currants to a clean tea towel or muslin, squeeze out as much liquid as you can (if you don’t do this, the dumplings will be soggy and won’t hold their shape), then put in the fridge until cold.
Put all the remaining dumpling ingredients apart from the oil in a medium bowl with half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Mix well, then refrigerate.
For the sauce, in a large nonstick frying pan for which you have a lid heat the olive oil on a medium-high flame. Saute the garlic, onion and a quarter-teaspoon of salt for five minutes, stirring, until the onions are soft and golden, then add the →
cherry tomatoes and cook for three minutes, until they start to soften. Add the passata, sugar, basil, 180ml water and a generous grind of pepper. Stir to combine, turn down the heat to medium and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes, stirring a few times. (If the sauce starts to stick to the base of the pan, add a bit more water.) Remove the pan from the heat, leave to cool slightly, then transfer to a blender (if you don’t have a free-standing one, use with a hand-held stick blender). Process until the sauce is very smooth and velvety, then return it to the pan.
Now you’re ready to make the dumplings. Put the cooled fennel and currants in a bowl with the bread and egg mixture and, using your hands, form into eight round dumplings, each weighing about 50-60g. As you shape them, squeeze and compress the mixture as much as possible; this will help ensure that they don’t fall apart when cooking.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large nonstick frying pan on a medium heat. Once hot, add the dumplings and fry for seven to eight minutes in total, turning them over once or twice, so they colour all over, and very gently moving them around in the pan, so they don’t stick. Once the dumplings are crisp and golden all over, turn off the heat and, using a slotted spoon, carefully lower them into the pan with the tomato sauce. Gently turn the dumplings in the sauce, so that they’re all coated in it, then return the pan to a lowmedium heat, cover, and leave to simmer for 15 minutes. Check the dumplings halfway through the cooking time: if the sauce is simmering or reducing too much, turn down the heat.
Serve the dumplings and sauce hot or warm, finishing them off with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of basil and a little salt and pepper • @ottolenghi
Yotam Ottolenghi is chef/patron of Ottolenghi and Nopi in London.