Fennel and Friends

Herbs! How dull our lives would be without herbs. Surprisingly, many people are averse to using them or dangerously flirt with some of the more mellow herbs. Such a shame! Herbs are a low-calorie, low-sodium way to add a flavor boost while providing extra nutrients, texture, color and interest to any dish.

Most people like parsley and are accustomed to seeing it as a garnish – a pretty decoration on the plate. Really though, it is way more than a garnish and gives everything it touches a brightness without overpowering other flavors. I use a lot of parsley in my cooking and often incorporate it into my salads and sandwiches. Its mellow, undramatic flavor simply enhances other flavors. I consider it a workhorse in my kitchen and it is rarely absent from my refrigerator. And, yes, I use stems in cooking, but often save them for soup stocks.

Oregano is used in many different cuisines and seems a little less foreign to American palates. Often used as a dried herb, it lends a great flavor to pizza sauce or Mexican sauces. I often sprinkle the dried herb on slices of pizza to give it a little more pizzazz. Fresh oregano is a whole different ballgame! First, as with herbs in general, the scent of oregano when you brush against the plant or pluck a stem is magnificent! Eaten raw in salads or on fresh fruit, it imparts a peppery, strong taste – a little goes a long way – but incorporated into a sauce or on veggies and meat while cooking, it mellows and adds a woodsy, earthy flavor. Start lightly and build as you cook!

There are so many different kinds of basil that an entire book can be written. (In fact, I’m sure there are basil books out there!) Many find the scent and taste of basil to be too strong and I’m so sorry to hear that for it is one of my favorite herbs. A handful of fresh basil on the counter infuses the entire kitchen with the scent of summer! It is bright, carefree, assertive and comfortable in its own shoes. Basil bosses everyone around and flaunts its spectacular self wherever it goes. More than just the backbone of traditional Italian pesto, basil is used profusely in Southeast Asian cuisines. It’s super easy to grow and you’ll find it at farmers markets all summer long.

OK, let’s just get this out of the way now: I love cilantro! There. I said it. Now you know what kind of person I really am. I eat it by the handful straight from the garden. If it were a perfume, it would be my signature scent. Professor Pepper, however, does not like it. I know there’s a genetic component to this so I’ve been very patient with him and he has come around to enjoying very small amounts of it. What’s a girl to do? I do use it in cooking but generally use half of what the recipe calls for and then add it to my portion later. After all, compromise is the secret ingredient to a long marriage.

While I could write an entire book about herbs (and will probably write more blogs about them), let me finish with fennel – another herb that Professor Pepper hates. (Sigh.) He doesn’t play ScrabbleTM and he doesn’t like fennel. (Heavy sigh.) Perhaps it is my culture and my upbringing where fennel was enjoyed whenever we could find it: raw, braised, in soups and sauces. After a heavy meal, biting into a slice of fennel is refreshing; it helps the tummy settle down and cleanses the palate. It’s not always easy to find in supermarkets but farmers markets are where the action is at – for all herbs! Early in the season, the fronds make their premier at the markets. Fronds are very hard to find in supermarkets so when I find fronds …. I am whisked to La Vucciria – an ancient alley in Palermo where I enjoyed a plate of Pasta con le Sarde (pasta with Sardines) that was absolutely loaded with fennel. Since Prof. Pepper hates fennel, I had the entire plate to myself! 

There are two ways to make this quintessential dish: with and without tomatoes. The recipe with tomatoes is very labor intensive and tastes better after it sits for a few days. In my family, it includes pinoli and raisins because we put them in everything. It is a very rich tomato sauce with chunks of fresh sardines (or other fish if sardines are unavailable), pinoli, raisins and flecks of fennel fronds strewn throughout. The flavor combo is absolutely sublime! In that dish, Prof. Pepper does not really taste the fennel and enjoys it immensely. The other dish does not use tomatoes. It is light and very easy to make. The recipe that I use is one that I often make after work, so it is very easy and quick and uses canned sardines. There are other recipes that require a bit more work and I encourage you to peruse the internet to find them. 

Here’s my simple recipe using very imprecise measurements: 

Pasta con le Sarde (Pepper Style)

1/2 cup olive oil

1 small onion, diced small

Small handful of fennel bulb, diced small

Large handful of fennel fronds, chopped

1-2 cloves garlic, smashed 

1-2 tablespoons capers (rinsed) – this really depends on your taste

2 cans sardines packed in unflavored olive oil or water, drained

Pinch of salt

Juice of 1 lemon

Red pepper flakes

Toasted bread crumbs

Parsley, chopped finely

1 lb pasta – long tubular shape like spaghetti or bucatini

In a large fry pan, heat the olive oil on medium heat until hot. Add the onions and fennel bulb to the oil and cook until both are soft – about 5 minutes. Drain the sardines and add them to the pan. Using the back of a wooden spoon, break the fish into large, bite-sized pieces. Add the garlic, capers, fennel fronds and salt; mix gently until all ingredients are incorporated. Let this cook at a medium-low heat for about 15 minutes to let the flavors meld together. 

Meanwhile, cook the pasta! You want a long, sturdy pasta like spaghetti, linguine, bucatini. 

As the pasta nears completion (al dente!), squeeze the lemon into the sauce and add a couple shakes of red pepper. 

Remove the pasta from the pot, reserving a cup or so of the cooking water, and put the pasta into the pan with the fish sauce. Using tongs, mix everything together and add some pasta water if it seems too dry. 

Serve topped with toasted breadcrumbs and chopped parsley. 

Pepper – June 2022

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