Finocchio Fantastico

Fennel is in season again which led me to recently playing with it in the kitchen. I have fond memories of using fennel prodigiously while cooking for the Petrarca family. They were extremely proud of their heritage and the traditional Italian cuisine was an important part of their meals. On the weekends, they enjoyed entertaining extended family and friends – and the meal could go on for hours.
If the weather was conducive, we would often have brunch or dinner at one large table spread outside on the terrace in the cooling shade of the enormous elm trees. As the day wore on, sometimes Tom Petrarca would get into the mood, pull out his accordion, and play a bit. It wouldn’t take long before he’d break into song, and soon everyone would be singing along.
Fennel was a major part of these family meals. The wine would flow, and dessert could wind on while espresso was served along with dessert wines and liqueurs. We’d offer a selection of specialty desserts, and trays of cookies and sweets would be passed. Then, amidst plenty of oohs and ahs, their beloved fennel would be set in the center of the table with a sampling of specialty cheeses – plus assorted nuts, with picks and crackers for casual shelling.

It’s no wonder fennel makes me smile.  Besides the obvious snacking benefits, its bright licorice flavor is especially wonderful raw in salads and salsas. However, on this day I wanted to create a tomato sauce richly laced with vegetables and complemented with some spicy meatballs – and fennel was the object of my intentions.

I wasn’t disappointed either. The sweetness of the fennel and carrot was the perfect balance to the acid of the tomatoes.  The licorice flavor was slightly muted, even though I elected to not overcook the sauce. Fortunately, I added fennel seed to the meatball mixture, which provided the perfect balance in this duet. I also used my convection oven to finish the meatballs, and wondered why I hadn’t thought of this sooner. They browned evenly and cooked in the amount of time that it took to prepare the sauce and simmer it briefly. At this point, I set it all aside and allowed it to cool.

When I was ready to start dinner, I heated the sauce, added the meatballs and simmered the sauce for about 20 minutes; just enough to infuse the sauce and cook the meatballs thoroughly. The finished sauce had a balanced spiciness and a lovely texture – and the carrots and fennel retained their slight al dente quality. Served with linguine and a shave of Parmesan: fantastico!

Tomato and Fennel Sauce with Meatballs and Pasta

24 oz. Meatballs (see below), browned well
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small bulb fennel, trimmed and chopped
1 whole carrot, peeled, chopped
2 teaspoons mixed dried herbs, savory, oregano, sage
2 – 14 oz cans tomatoes chopped, in puree
1 – 8 oz can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons fresh oregano
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, shaved
1 pound linguine, cooked al dente and drained well

Meatballs:
24 ounces lean ground beef
1/2 onion minced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 slices day-old bread, soaked in water, squeezed dry
1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees: use convection if available. Line baking sheet with foil, drizzle with olive oil.

Combine meatball ingredients with hands and form into approx. 1″ balls and place on baking sheet, roll them in olive oil and bake in oven for about 10 minutes. When they begin to brown turn the meatballs and bake for additional 10 minutes or until browned on all sides. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Meanwhile in large pot, heat the oil and saute the onion and garlic until aromatic. Trim the fennel root and leaves, remove the tough outer portion, and chop like celery. Add the fennel and carrot and cook for 4-5 minutes stirring occasionally, until vegetable begin to soften, adding the herbs as they cook. Add the tomatoes and sauce, stir well, simmer 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat.

When ready to serve, reheat the tomato sauce and add the meatballs; simmer for 15-20 minutes. Stir in fresh herbs and simmer briefly. Serve with pasta and fresh Parmesan cheese. Serves 4 ~~

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