RC /FoodLetter/IOTM: Fish on a fennel bed

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RC /FoodLetter/IOTM: Fish on a fennel bed

Postby Robin Garr » Thu Feb 15, 2007 11:52 am

Fish on a fennel bed

Let's take a little time this month getting to know fennel, the bulb-shaped, gently anise-scented vegetable that the Italians call "<I>Finocchio</I>."

Fennel, food-trivia lovers will be intrigued to learn, comes down to us from the Latin word for "fragrant hay." It is the Ingredient of the Month for February in our FoodLovers Discussion Group, where we'll be talking all month about the topic - both the fresh bulb with its celery-like crunch and mild anise flavor, and the aromatic fennel seed that's a trademark ingredient in Italian sausage.

What are your favorite uses for fennel? I hope you'll drop by the FoodLovers forum and spend a moment reading the discussions and sharing your own comments and recipes. Here's a short-cut link that will take you directly to the topic "Ingredient of the Month February: Fennel,"
http://www.wineloverspage.com/forum/village/viewtopic.php?t=6423

To get things started, here's one of my favorite recipes for finocchio, an old Italian-style fish dish that has become a family favorite. It's much evolved, but takes its original inspiration from a couple of Marcella Hazan's classic recipes for sea bass on fennel and bluefish on potatoes.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

1 good-size fennel bulb
1 medium or one-half large sweet onion
1/4 cup (60ml) or more good, fruity olive oil
2 or 3 cloves garlic
Dried red-pepper flakes
Salt
Black pepper
2 fillets bluefish, sea bass, mackerel or other firm, flavorful fish

PROCEDURE:

1. Trim off the root end and fronds from the fennel bulb (you can save the fronds for aromatic plate decorations if you like). Wash the bulb and cut it vertically into very thin slices, roughly 1/4 inch (6mm) thick. Peel the onion, cut it in half, and slice one or both of the halves (depending on size and how much you like onion) into similar vertical slices. Peel the garlic and mince it fine.

2. Put all but 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a saucepan and cook about half of the minced garlic and a discreet shake of red-pepper flakes over medium-high heat until it's aromatic and just starting to brown. Put in all the sliced fennel and onion and toss with the hot oil and garlic for a few minutes, until it starts to wilt. Season lightly with salt and black pepper (don't overdo - you can always adjust seasoning at the end), reduce heat to low, and cook, covered, for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, until the fennel and onions are crisp-tender. Add a small amount of water if it looks like it's sticking, but the oil and natural moisture of the vegetables will probably be enough.

3. While the vegetables are cooking, preheat oven to 450F (230C). Lightly paint a 13x7-inch baking dish with a small amount of olive oil, spoon in the cooked vegetables, and lay the fish fillets on top, skin-side down. Sprinkle the reserved minced garlic on the fillets, and drizzle the remaining olive oil over them; hit with a little salt and pepper, and bake for 10 minutes or so. Take them out briefly, carefully spoon a little olive oil from the bottom of the pan and baste the fish with it. Return to the oven, bake 10 minutes more, and you're ready to check seasoning and serve.

<B>MATCHING WINE:</B> Both the fish and the fennel pretty much insist on a dry, acidic but not necessarily lightweight wine. I like it with a rich Southern Italian white like Fiano or Greco di Tufo, but have also paired it very successfully with Sancerre or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc; extra points if the wine is in the "grassy" style to play off the fennel.

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Re: RC /FoodLetter/IOTM: Fish on a fennel bed

Postby Howie Hart » Thu Feb 15, 2007 12:18 pm

Robin Garr wrote:....2 fillets bluefish, sea bass, mackerel or other firm, flavorful fish....
As one who has limited experience with fish varieties, is there a guide for fish selections for dishes such as this? For instance, how would one categorize haddock, red snapper, ocean perch, sole, flounder, etc.? Then there's fresh water fish, such as yellow pike (walleye), trout, bluegill, salmon and catfish.
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Re: RC /FoodLetter/IOTM: Fish on a fennel bed

Postby Robin Garr » Thu Feb 15, 2007 1:02 pm

Howie Hart wrote:
Robin Garr wrote:....2 fillets bluefish, sea bass, mackerel or other firm, flavorful fish....
As one who has limited experience with fish varieties, is there a guide for fish selections for dishes such as this? For instance, how would one categorize haddock, red snapper, ocean perch, sole, flounder, etc.? Then there's fresh water fish, such as yellow pike (walleye), trout, bluegill, salmon and catfish.


Good question, Howie! The short answer is that identifying the different styles of fish is a lot like identifying the different styles of wine ... you've got to learn by tasting, and until you get there, asking questions of a trusted (fish) merchant is a good short-cut.

Basically, though, I tend to feel fairly free to substitute fish in recipes, but I tend to try to stick with fish that have similar characteristics. In this instance, the fish I like for this dish - including the specific suggestions I made - are generally firm-fleshed, not flaky, and tend to have a distinct fish flavor - not "fishy," assuming that they're fresh, but more on the robust than delicate side. The fish you named - snapper, sole, flounder - tend in my estimation to be more delicate and subtle in flavor, and they tend to flake when cooked. I like these fillets to stay whole after baking.

Frankly, even though I live on a big river and a long way from the seacoast, I'm pretty much a salt-water fish guy. I like trout okay, but to the extent that I have any expertise (not much), I generally know more about, and am much more likely to cook, saltwater fish and shellfish.
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Re: RC /FoodLetter/IOTM: Fish on a fennel bed

Postby Kevin C » Fri Feb 16, 2007 10:42 am

Robin,
I use these same ingredients when I cook en papillote (usually flounder, tilapia or red fish) and add a little of the dry white wine to the pouch for a bit more steam and you're ready. I myself prefer Sauvignon Blanc but have also used Chenin Blanc with success. Even the teenagers like this recipe and of course popping open the pouch at the table adds the little extra fun!
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Re: RC /FoodLetter/IOTM: Fish on a fennel bed

Postby Jenise » Fri Feb 16, 2007 4:34 pm

Looks like a great recipe, fish is definitely one of fennel's best friends. One of the best halibut dishes I've ever had was at Feeney's Bistro in Vancouver, they served the pan fried halibut piece on a bed of paper thin slivers of softened fennel and surrounded it with an orange beurre blanc. Sensational.
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Re: RC /FoodLetter/IOTM: Fish on a fennel bed

Postby Robin Garr » Fri Feb 16, 2007 4:47 pm

Kevin C wrote:I use these same ingredients when I cook en papillote (usually flounder, tilapia or red fish) and add a little of the dry white wine to the pouch for a bit more steam and you're ready. I myself prefer Sauvignon Blanc but have also used Chenin Blanc with success. Even the teenagers like this recipe and of course popping open the pouch at the table adds the little extra fun!


Sounds great, Kevin! Thanks for the suggestion. Funny, when I think about en papillote, I think of my grandfather, who just loved New Orleans and imparted that love to me. He thought pompano en papillote (from Galatoire's, maybe?) was the most amazing dish in the world, and now I find it hard to imagine any fish in an envelope unless it's a pretty little silver pompano.

But the concept sounds great, and the way the fish and herbs steam together with the wine in the enclosed envelope ought to do an amazing job of infusing the fish with aromatics. Must try this.
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Re: RC /FoodLetter/IOTM: Fish on a fennel bed

Postby Robin Garr » Fri Feb 16, 2007 4:49 pm

Jenise wrote:Looks like a great recipe, fish is definitely one of fennel's best friends.


I think so too! I'm not sure about tuna or salmon, but just about any other fish would work, and heck, maybe they would too.

One of the best halibut dishes I've ever had was at Feeney's Bistro in Vancouver, they served the pan fried halibut piece on a bed of paper thin slivers of softened fennel and surrounded it with an orange beurre blanc. Sensational.


I must have this! :)
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Re: RC /FoodLetter/IOTM: Fish on a fennel bed

Postby Charles Weiss » Mon Feb 19, 2007 9:58 pm

Robin,
The recipe was very appealing and we used it tonight. Thanks for a nice dinner! The only adaptation I made was to add a pour (maybe a 1/4 cup) of triple sec to the fennel and onions while they were cooking on the stove. I've used Jane Brody's recipe for braised fennel as an accompaniment to fish, and admired the effect of orange liqueur in that dish. As is true of that dish, it doesn't come out yelling 'orange' but gains some additional richness and nuance.
FWIW, we had a relatively simple Heidler GV "Loss" which went pretty well.
Thanks again,
Charles
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Re: RC /FoodLetter/IOTM: Fish on a fennel bed

Postby Bob Parsons Alberta » Mon Feb 19, 2007 11:13 pm

When I worked at the George Cinq in Paris (mid 1960`s), we used to do a whole sea-bass served on dried fennel flamed with pastis!!
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