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Fennel & Bay

(post, Judith Klinger)

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Fennel & Bay

There is an unexpected synergy between these two flavors that surprises me. They get along like Nick & Nora Charles of The Thin Man films, feisty, combative but ultimately they very elegantly get the job done. 

I’m not talking about fresh fennel, but dry stalks of wild fennel, steeped in liquid, along with bay leaves. We encountered this intriguing flavor combination in the Gargano region of Puglia and I dug through my Puglia reference books to see if this was a classic pairing but  there is no mention of putting these two flavors together.   There are plenty of recipes that incorporate bay with seafood in Adriatic fish cooking, but nothing about  combining bay and fennel.  I went to where they live and breathe unique flavor combos, but again I came up empty. As a last resort, I went low brow,  and checked the ingredients for Old Bay seasoning, but no fennel. Hmmmm......

Wild fennel is a staple in central and southern Italian cooking.  You can find it growing on the side of the road, in a field, just sprouting in the garden. Fennel pollen is an essential flavor in Umbrian meat preparations. Massive fennel stalks are bound together and are roasted inside whole pig porchetta. In fact the Italian expression  ‘in porchetta’ means cooked with fennel. 

It’s not a pretty sight, you are literally cooking with dried out fennel weed stalks, but the flavor is subtle, almost sweet, earthy, and pervasive. Now add the pungent bay leaf, this is brash Nick to elegant Nora’s fennel.  (If you don’t know who Nick & Nora are, YouTube to the rescue.)

If you can find some fennel weed, try this:

Fennel & Bay Shrimp
1-2 stalks fennel weed
2-3 bay leaves
1 cup tomato puree
2 cloves chopped garlic
1 chili pepper, optional, not too hot,  you want gentle warmth...not HEAT
3/4 cup white wine
Olive Oil, Salt, Pepper

1 pound of shrimp, with their shell, head on if you can find them

Preparation: Add about 2T of olive oil to a pan large enough to hold the shrimp. Toss in the fennel weed, bay leaves and chili pepper. Let the oil get warm, no sizzle, warm enough so if you hold your hand over the pan it feels pleasantly hot. Now add the tomato puree, white wine and garlic and let simmer at low heat for about 10-15 minutes.  You can now let this sit until you are ready to cook & serve the shrimp.  Go have a glass of Prosecco with your guests and let the flavors in the pan all mingle and relax.

When you are ready to cook the shrimp, remove the fennel weed and place on a serving platter. Turn up the heat to medium high and cook the shrimp for a few minutes until they are done.  Arrange on a platter and spoon the sauce over the shrimp or serve the sauce on some pasta or with big pieces of crusty bread. Have paper towels handy, because this is a finger licking good recipe. 
If you can’t find fennel weed, try this with some Old Bay, and tell me how it is.