If you grew up in Rhode Island, or spend your summers on the beaches here, you know certain things about food.
You know about stuffies and doughboys, jonnycakes and dynamites. You know a coffee cabinet from a kitchen cabinet. You know that an Awful Awful® isn't awful at all.
And you know pizza sausage, the kind of Italian sausage crumbled onto pizzas everywhere around here, the kind of sausage that gets its traditional flavor from fennel seed.
You might not know, though it is true, that Italian-sausage manufacturers are the major end users for most of the world supply of fennel seed.
Thank goodness they save some for the rest of us.
Fennel seed is not the seed of the plant that gives us fennel bulbs. Though both are members of the parsley family, fennel seed is actually the dried fruit of the sweet garden fennel that I plant in my herb garden every year; the bulb we enjoy as a vegetable comes from Florence fennel. Two different varieties, two different parts of the plant used in cooking.
The most potent part of the plant, fennel seed imparts a licorice-like flavor, and dry-roasting the seed brings out its sweetness. The best quality seeds are a greenish-yellow color (which mine are, though the photo doesn't show their true greenness); they'll keep for up to two years if stored in an airtight container, and like all spices lose some of their zing when ground.
Popular in Mediterranean cuisines, fennel seed also is one of the five components of Chinese five-spice powder, and of the Indian five-spice mixture, panch phoron. It combines well with beets, tomatoes, fish, beans and lentils, and potatoes. In Iraq, it's used to flavor breads; in Alsace, sauerkraut.
In ancient times, people believed that fennel could improve eyesight, encourage weight loss, and discourage evil spirits. According to one source, in the time of Britain's King Edward I, the royal household consumed more than eight pounds of fennel seed every month, though how they used it is a bit of a mystery.
It's no mystery how to use fennel seed to great acclaim in your own kitchen; try hazelnut, fig, fennel seed and rosemary bread, anise and fennel seed carrot soup, cranberry-orange sorbet, channa dal, fennel scented black-eyed peas and wild greens, grape foccacia, and, of course, sausage pizza made with pizza sausage, in true Rhode Island style.
Potato and swordfish tortino
Another wonderful dish adapted from Faith Heller Willinger's Adventures of an Italian Food Lover, it's the perfect centerpiece for a dinner party, especially when baked, like ours, in a paella pan. The original recipe calls for sardines, mackerel, or other strong-flavored small fish, but swordfish, tuna and halibut work beautifully. Serves 6.
1-1/2 pounds Yukon Gold or red skinned potatoes
1/2-1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Sea salt and fresh black pepper
1 dried chile pepper, minced
2 heaping tsp dried (but not old) oregano
1 Tbsp lemon zest
1 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 cup tomato pulp (we used canned tomatoes)
1 lb swordfish (or halibut or tuna), sliced in half horizontally to make fillets less than 1/2-inch thick
2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
1/3 cup unflavored bread crumbs
Slice the potatoes on a mandoline, or by hand, 1/4-inch thick. In a large nonstick frying pan, film the bottom with oil, and sauté the potatoes in batches until lightly browned but not crisp. Place cooked potatoes in a bowl, and toss gently with the garlic, parsley, salt and pepper, and a bit of the minced chile pepper, plus 1/4 cup of the remaining olive oil. Place in a paella pan or large roasting pan, in a single layer if possible.
Mince 1 heaping teaspoon of the oregano with the lemon zest and fennel seeds. Sprinkle over the potatoes. Scatter half the tomato pulp over the potatoes. Place a layer of fish over the potatoes to completely cover. Season with salt, pepper, the remaining chile pepper, oregano, parsley, and the basil, and scatter with the remaining tomato pulp. Top with the bread crumbs and drizzle with olive oil. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the tortino for 10-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, until the bread crumbs are browned and the fish is cooked through. Serve hot or at room temperature.
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