Finally, spring is in the air! After a long and arduous winter for so many of us, you can feel moods and spirits lighten. There is a spring in our step as the weather begins to warm and the morning light begins to brighten. Here in the east it remains just a bit too cold to turn the garden soil although only perhaps for a few more days. I wait – not very patiently – sketching out my garden plots, reading and re-reading my seed packets, moving my little tomato seedlings from room to room to catch the best sun. Our farmer’s markets have the first hints of spring crop but the flood of fresh peas, lettuces and onions are still a few weeks away.
For now until the spring crop arrives, I must be content with dreaming up ways to brighten up the dinner table after a long winter of hearty soul-warming meals. And fennel’s delicate sweet taste does just the trick. Growing up, fennel was a constant in our kitchen. My mom would slice finocchio in salads; serve it with oranges as an after school snack; drizzle it with olive oil as we waited for our Sunday pasta. Here its sweet earthy taste mingled with potatoes and lemon, provides a superb backdrop for the freshest of fish from your fishmonger. This one-dish meal comes together quickly. Feel free to substitute another fresh whole fish if red snapper is unavailable.
Fennel, or Florence fennel, is a delicious cool weather vegetable that has graced Mediterranean cuisines for centuries. From its crisp bulb to its hearty seeds, every portion of the fennel plant is both edible and delicious. Its mild licorice taste shines through when eaten raw but mellows to a buttery sweetness when cooked. Its wild bulb-less cousin, finocchio selvatico, grows all throughout the coastal areas of southern Italy. The scent of fennel transports me back to the little island of Pantelleria where I vividly remember the delicate scent of wild fennel wafting on the cool breeze as I rambled through fields near the sea – as glorious as the coming spring.
Buona primavera, tutti!
Baked Red Snapper with Fennel, Potatoes and Lemon
1 large fennel bulb
About 1 pound baby potatoes, halved (you can substitute other small potatoes such as fingerlings or new)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus additional for drizzling
2 large shallots, finely chopped
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 large stalk celery, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
1 whole cleaned red snapper (about 2 ½ to 3 pounds)
½ cup dry white wine
Trim the fennel. Discard the stalks. Reserve the fennel fronds. Halve the fennel bulb and remove the core. Slice into thin sticks about 1/4 “ thick.
Place the potatoes in a large saucepan and add enough cold water to cover the potatoes. Add about ½ to 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover the pan. Cook until the potatoes are just tender (but not too soft as they will cook further in the oven) – about 15 minutes. Drain potatoes and set aside.
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add in the shallot, garlic and celery and sauté until softened and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add in the sliced fennel. Sauté over medium low heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut a piece of heavy duty foil large enough to cover most of a large baking tray – you will be making a foil packet with a second piece of foil to hold the fish and vegetables.
Cut 2 or 3 angled slits on both sides of the red snapper. Slice the lemon lengthwise and cut into thin half moons. Rub the fish all over including the cavity with olive oil. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place a lemon slice in each slit. Place the fish on the foil.
Stir the potatoes into the sautéed fennel mixture. Arrange around the fish on the foil. Sprinkle with fennel fronds, reserving a few. Place any additional lemon slices into the cavity of the fish. Pour the wine over the fish and vegetables and drizzle one more time with olive oil. Place another piece of foil on top and crimp over the edges to form a packet.
Place the tray in the oven and roast for about 30 minutes. Carefully open the foil package and sprinkle with additional fennel fronds and a drizzle of oil.