For most people, fennel is probably not the first ingredient they think of when they think of Italian cooking. However, here in Sicily it’s a very common and beloved vegetable used in everything from soups, rice and pasta dishes. A few weeks ago, when the fennel season was at its peak, we were often served fresh fennel bulb, just cut up on a plate, as a crunchy and flavourful side dish together with other antipasti.
Since in Sweden one can only purchase farmed fennel bulbs we hadn’t realised two other things about fennel: firstly that you can also use the stems, finely chopped to give a discrete, aniseed flavour to dishes, and secondly that Sicily is full of wild growing fennel.
On all of our walks into the country side with our friends from the pasticceria, we were always stopping to collect some and were always encouraged to use it in our cooking. Not really knowing that the leafy parts are too spicy, it took some time before we understood how to use the wild fennel and grew to like it!
One of the favourite recipes that we have come across is a version of the famous Pasta a la Milanese (or pasta con le sarde), that according to the Internet had hundreds of different variations. Our one, taught, as usual by our Sicilian friends contains fresh sardines, tomato sauce, peas and the all important fennel stems.
The procedure is fairly simple if you don’t use fresh sardines that need cleaning. After heating up some olive oil and lightly frying some finely chopped onion in a saucepan, the tomato sauce, peas and sardines are added and left to simmer for around up to an hour, stirring from time to time and making sure that the sauce hasn’t dried off. Season with salt, pepper and fresh chopped fennel stems and serve with spaghetti, penne or your favourite pasta. Delicioso!