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Grow, Finocchio

The Fennel Her Grandmother Coaxed From the Ohio Soil Became a Little Taste of Sicily

March 04, 2001|CHRIS DAVIS | Chris Davis is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore

Fennel grows huge in the loamy soil of Southern California, and it's not always confined to a garden. Hiking, I've grabbed hold of it to pull myself up a hillside. And I've brushed past it on trails and bluffs around Malaga Cove on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Each time I see it, I think of my grandmother, and of springtime in Ohio.

Born at the turn of the century near Palermo, Sicily, Elizabeth Ventura came to the United States in the 1920s, eventually settling in my hometown of Lima, in northwestern Ohio. Only crabgrass, which flourishes in the sidewalks, grows well there, and maybe dandelions, which get as big as shrubs by midsummer, and are just about as hardy.

It must have been depressing, trading the Mediterranean for the stark winters of Ohio, and the only way to taste something as exotic as fennel was to grow it yourself.

In the 1960s, when I was a kid, finocchio seeds were also impossible to find. Grandma's sister would send them from Sicily in airmail envelopes. After the last frost of spring, Grandma placed them in the cool, clay earth and waited for the late summer harvest. What she didn't use she froze in small packets for the long winters.

Even then I knew she was a spectacular cook, making meals I never saw or tasted anywhere but in her kitchen: pasta with squid-ink sauce, snails stewed with fresh tomato and peas, octopus salad with oregano and lemon. Always there were fennel dishes. My favorites included her pasta with fennel and sardines, and something called frittedda--a melange of fresh spring vegetables, simmered with fennel and pancetta, so satisfying that I have dreamed of bottomless bowls of it.

Sometimes Grandma served frittedda as a side dish with homemade sausages. We slurped spoonfuls like soup, then sopped up the juices with bread. Other times she mixed it with pasta and sprinkled it with pepper and grated pecorino.

On some Saturdays, I rode my bike to her home to help her make sausage. While she fed the meat into the grinder and cranked the stubborn handle, I threaded whisper-thin casings onto the attachment and controlled their slow release with just the right amount of tension. Some found their way into pasta sauce for relaxed Sunday meals. The rest were broiled or grilled for sandwiches and to be eaten with piles of pepperoncini, chunks of pecorino, Kalamata olives and fragrant bowls of frittedda.

Landlocked in the middle of a continent, I ate more like a peasant from the Sicilian countryside than a cornfed kid of the American Midwest. And I had no idea how lucky I was.

FRITTEDDA

Serves 6

2 pounds fresh young fava beans (unshelled weight) or 1 15-ounce can green favas

3 artichokes or 8 ounces frozen artichoke hearts

Half a lemon

1 pound fresh small peas (unshelled weight) or 8 ounces premium frozen small peas

Fruity olive oil

1/2 cup chopped pancetta

1 bunch green onions, chopped

3-4 cups hot water

11/2 cups fennel tops, chopped

Salt and black pepper

*

To remove fresh fava beans from pods, blanch them in boiling water for 1 minute. When cool, pinch bottom end of fava and "squirt" bean out of its covering. Strip artichokes down to hearts, removing all leaves and spiny choke, and cut them into 1/2-inch wedges, rubbing with lemon so they don't darken. Shell peas.

While preparing vegetables, set a 4-quart saucepan on medium heat. Heat a teaspoon of olive oil and gently fry pancetta. When fat is rendered, add green onions and saute gently until they are tender and pancetta is cooked and begins to brown. Remove pancetta and onions with a slotted spoon; pour off fat and return pan to heat. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and return pancetta and onions to pan. Turn heat to medium high, add the 3 cups hot water and partly cover pan. When water boils, add artichoke hearts. Cover pan, turn heat to low and simmer until hearts are about half done (check at about 10 minutes). Add fresh peas, favas, fennel tops and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, covered, until vegetables are very tender (10 to 15 minutes). Add salt and pepper to taste. If using frozen or canned vegetables, adjust cooking times accordingly.

If mixture gets too thick, add a little water, but not more than 1 cup. It should resemble a fairly thick soup. Success depends on using a good amount of salt and pepper, especially if using fresh vegetables. Before serving, lightly drizzle a little olive oil over frittedda.

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