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This is an ode to fennel, one of the most beautiful winter vegetables and, indeed, the most elegant. Fennel id the vegetable of this nostalgic time of mist hanging over the fields and veiling the sun, coating all the hair-thin fronds in pearly droplets and frosting the grass at 6 AM. Fennel is the offspring of this fall/winter mood, that finally seems to have stricken Italy after one of the warmest, driest Octobers since my birth.
I had this salad for the first time in the most interesting context: I was at a dinner organized in a theater, and they put tables instead of seats, and we ate as a mini-show went on to accompany each course. The show was absolutely beautiful (and so was the setting), but this salad is one of the things that hit me the most.
Fennel, orange and good extra virgin olive oil is a very Italian combo, and what better time to make this salad, now that new, freshly pressed, emerald green olive oil is out?
I added lemon thyme and szechuan pepper for a fancy kick, but you can skip both and use regular pepper instead. Olives are often added to this salad, and, if you’re not vegan, some pecorino shavings round this up beautifully.
To make it a full meal, add something like quinoa or any other form of protein that fits your diet – this salad goes well with pretty much anything (especially fatty fish if you’re not plant based).
Do you like fennel? What is your favorite recipe with it?
Fennel Salad with Oranges, Toasted Almonds and Lemon Thyme
Peel the oranges with a paring knife so you can get rid of the white part as well. Cut them lenghtwise into thin wedges, or cut the oranges crosswise as to show the sections of the oranges, which look beautiful.
Toss the shaved fennel and sliced oranges in a bowl with plenty of extra virgin olive oil, the lemon or orange juice, torn leaves from the lemon thyme, salt to taste and pepper.
Serve the salad in individual bowls and sprinkle on top the toasted almonds or nuts, and olives and pecorino if using.
As you might know, my cookbook,Naturally Vegetarian, will be available on November 7th! and there is a chance for 10 of you who preorder it to win a beautiful print from the book!
HOW IT WORKS
The giveaway will run from today to November 3rd. To enter, preorder your copy on any of the websites where it is available, which you can find here.
then submit your preorder code via this form.
Hope you get it and love it! —–
We stepped on a sun-bathed mix of overgrown fresh herbs and flowers, standing strong against impending mid-October, and crispy reddish-golden leaves, surrendered to the season, as we approached the flaky wooden door. Marco spotted a few more mushrooms between the leaves and kneeled to pick them and add them to his basket, where black-to-brown-to-orange-to-yellow hues of mushrooms were snugly grouped together.
‘here’, said Eugenia as she turned the key into the door. ‘This is Ophelia’s home. It’s all dusty – watch your steps.’
The chiaroscuro of lights in the corridor was dazzling. In these old homes, light filters in through the semi-closed windows and holes in the walls as if it was elbowing its way violently through, as chiaroscuro is a fight between the light crashing through obstacles that turn its path pitch black, and every centimeter of space becomes a ring for this sparring of cutting through space and blocking hits. It is a dance of celebration and mourning; of dawn and dusk, round every corner and every piece of furniture.
It is such a fitting mood for abandoned places and for abandoned hearts.
A dusty green table was sitting on a corner, topped by an old scale and flecks of dust. In the old kitchen, a stunning traditional Friulan brick and cast iron stove sat in a corner. Dark green wooden chairs were scattered all around the house – one still hosting a newspaper with tattered, yellowing pages, as if waiting for someone to return.
Ophelia’s ghost seemed to be there still, sitting next to the window on that azure floral cushion, hit by the early afternoon Fall sunlight.
‘Who’s Ophelia?’ I asked.
‘She was a cousin of ours,’ Eugenia replied. ‘This house has been empty since the seventies. It is falling to pieces, which is too bad. It is such a beautiful house.’
So I started wondering about all the chairs that are left empty, and about the feeling that these 100-year old buildings carry with them: presences can be felt. There are places that still hold souls within. Once you start visiting these buildings, you can clearly tell the difference between walking into a new apartment, or any abandoned building. They sit, like an elderly person left alone, dead without notice: they will always carry the nostalgia of those who took care of them and saw them grow old and weary.
I did not ask what life Ophelia led, but I imagined it as I climbed the crackly wooden stairs and stepped on those still beautiful worn floorboards, and touched the light, tattered floral curtains, filtering the light through the dust.
I wondered wether she waited for someone, gazing out the window from her kitchen, where the stove was lit and warmed the room along with the sun rays. I wondered wether she had a lost boyfriend, in those mountains in Friuli where both wars were so ferocious, and she waited to hear footsteps on the crackling golden leaves, on the snow, on the grass, on burnt nettles.
I wondered wether she lay awake at night, thinking what she would cook on that stove, after gathering the wood to light it up, and wether her chairs would fill up, and with who. I wondered wether there was an empty chair she wished could have a host.
I wondered wether she braided her hair or she kept it short, and wether she tied it with flowers and fresh aromatics in the spring. Ophelia, the drowning damsel of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, princess of nothing but her own dreams.
I wondered who her footsteps could wake up in late evenings, when the house was cold and floorboards are too noisy when walked on, embers still faintly burn in the stove, and a can of fresh, unpasteurized cow’s milk sat outside in the cold, starry night. There are no lights in Faedis, tiny her village, except for those of her home.
But, most of all, I wondered what Ophelia cooked in that stove of hers. With butter and cheese that they made at home, and mushrooms they picked from their garden, and buckwheat and corn flour, what could her favorite dish be?
Could it be a soft, creamy polenta, topped with a fondue of latteria or malga cheese – a dish called suf in Friuli? Or could it be polenta with morchia – corn flour stir-fried in butter? Could it be cjalsons – ravioli stuffed with herbs and cheese and dressed with butter and cinnamon? Or foraged mountain herbs, like nettles, silene, mint and mallow, cooked in a frittata from her hens?
As I looked out the windows and into the stove, I imagined all these things.
‘What if someone like Ophelia added mushrooms to polenta gnocchi?’ I asked Marco, who was teaching me so much about Friuli cuisine.
‘Well, I’d say she either went out and foraged some or that she was quite wealthy,’ he laughed. ‘They’re in season now, but they aren’t an everyday occurrence.’
When we exited the house we all hiccuped back to reality. It is what happens when you exit places with souls trapped within: you wonder wether you have really been inside, and wether the past ten minutes really happen at all. Then you look back at the closed door and wonder wether someone actually whispered all those thoughts in your ears or if it was all a product of your imagination.
When we got back to Eugenia’s house, there were three grandmas in aprons making butter. Their stove was hot and a kettle was boiling on top of it. A sturdy woman was shaking milk solids in a large jar, and another one was preparing the ice.
‘See? we’ll add the ice to the jar, and the butter will get solid. Then we’ll shape it.’
Another woman brought in a bucketful of freshly squeezed milk.
‘It’s the right time to go and forage herbs,’ said one of the women. ‘We could make frittata. We should also start the water for polenta…‘
Here, in this house, all the chairs around the table were sat on, except one.
Marco started the polenta – a coarse, delicious polenta from Socchieve, full of black specks – and cooked the mushrooms in what I thought was too much butter. He is one of those extraordinary people who can cook in a shirt and dress pants and not get a single bit of food on himself.
I poured the tea.
‘Who is the extra cup from?’ they asked.
I accidentally poured one too many. I must have though Ophelia was there, gazing outside the window at her own home from the empty chair.
‘I’ll have two,’ I said.
Polenta ‘gnocchi’ are a dish, as said above, born to use leftover polenta. Polenta is one of the most common ingredients in Friuli, where wheat is almost nonexistent but there are several varieties of delicious ancient corn. Recipes from Friuli are simple, as, back in the early 1900s, it was one of the poorest regions in Italy. But its food, which varies from the earthy and fresh mountain flavors and down to the seaside, is some of the most interesting of the country and uses cinnamon and an immense array of cheeses widely.
This dish makes for a delicious veganizable (and gluten-free!) main course if you substitute olive oil for butter, and, since the mushrooms are so umami-rich, it will taste amazing without the cheese as well.
If using cheese and have no access to Montasio or Latteria, use Parmigiano or Grana to finish the dish, or any seasoned cheese you like and you have access to.
3 tbsps butter (for a vegan version, use olive oil)
Coarse salt for the water
FOR THE MUSHROOMS
About 450g (1 lb) Galletti mushrooms, or a mix of your favorite mushrooms
4-5 fresh small porcini*
4 tbsps butter (for a vegan version, sub with olive oil)
2 tbsps olive oil
2-3 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
A scant half cup (about 100 ml) dry white wine
A couple sprigs of thyme, OR 5-6 sage leaves
Salt and pepper
Grated cheese to finish, preferably seasoned Latteria or Montasio (skip if vegan)**
FOR THE MUSHROOM SAUCE
Clean the girolles and porcini, or any mushroom you are using, with a cloth and a brush, so that you get rid of all the residue of soil. Mine were very fresh and quite dirty, so I also rinsed them under cold running water and dried them with a tea towel. Cut the mushroom in slices or smaller pieces.
Add the butter, olive oil, herbs and garlic to the pan and turn on the heat on medium. When the butter melts and starts to sizzle, turn the heat to medium-high, and let the butter sizzle for a few seconds more. Add the mushrooms and turn the heat to high. Sauté them (or stir) to coat them in fat. Deglaze with the wine, and sauté a few seconds more. Let the wine evaporate completely. Add about ¼ cup water, salt and pepper to taste, and cover. Cook for 5 minutes. At this point, the mushrooms should have released their water. If they did, continue cooking, covered, for 5 more minutes, then uncover and cook, stirring every now and then, for 5 more minutes.
If you used a kind of mushroom that releases less water, cook them on medium, turning down the heat to medium-low, rather than on high.
When done, remove the garlic cloves and herbs.
FOR THE POLENTA GNOCCHI
Prepare a pot of water, bring it to a boil and lightly salt it with coarse salt.
Cut the leftover polenta into ½ inch cubes, and dump them into the boiling water. Once they float, drain them. It should take about 3 minutes.
Melt the butter or oil in a pan and, once it sizzles, add the polenta gnocchi. Stir-fry, tossing every now and then, and let each side get golden. Once ready, drain them from excess fat and toss them with the mushrooms.
It is funny how sometimes, when you are absolutely firm on the decision that you do not like something or someone, life finds a way to make you change your mind.
This is the story about how life decided that I had to like polenta, when in fact I never did.
Some three years ago, when I was working an office job, a freelance guy who was in charge of developing a new app walked in and sat at the desk next to mine.
His name was Daniele, and the first thing we noticed, aside a pair of square glasses framing a constantly smiling, kind face, was his strong accent. His way of speaking made me smile: he was from Vicenza, in northern Veneto. I loved that accent, which felt so close to my heart and to a family heritage I hadn’t explored as much as I wanted to. We quickly became friends.
In August, he invited me to go on a tour of Veneto with him for a few days (there is the chronicle of this on the blog!). We visited Vicenza, Verona, Treviso, Bassano del Grappa, Soave, Marostica, and ended up in Caorle, a quiet sea town where some friends held a wonderful dinner at their home. There, they served us polenta instead of bread.
Before I go on, I should stress just how different each region of Italy is. The Triveneto, the part of Italy that once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire and that finds its forte in making the best polenta in the country, is entirely different from the rest of Italy in architecture, language and gastronomy. Triveneto, which includes the ‘Venezia Euganea‘ (Veneto and Venice), the ‘Venezia Tridentina‘ (Trentino Alto-Adige, the region on the Alps), and the ‘Venezia Giulia‘ (Friuli Venezia-Giulia, the north-easternmost part of Italy) has a tradition of polentas of all kinds, colors and consistencies, which are completely unknown to the rest of Italy. And I mean, unknown.
I had already noticed how Veneto definitely lacked decent bread and pizza (sorry Venetians, it’s just how it is), so, at that party, I grabbed a bite of polenta out of politeness, and as soon as I put it in my mouth I couldn’t believe what I tasted.
The consistency. The flavor. Everything was so intense, so much more intense than what I was used to at home.
Polenta, being the epitome of the poor man’s food – even more so than bread alone, had been present in my household of farmers for years and years and years. The point of it was always dousing it in sauces, wether it was meat sauce, mushroom sauce, bean stew, clam ragu, or any other tomato-y, oily, delicious condiment. My mom bought the only polenta she easily found at the supermarket, the kind of flavorless pre-cooked polenta ready in 5 minutes.
Still, even though polenta was definitely present in the traditions of Emilia-Romagna, Marche and Tuscany, I had never had a polenta like that, which was just delicious on its own.
I have not seen Daniele in a while, but sometimes I miss that warm feeling that irradiated from his calm smile, and the polenta he, his friends and his family had offered me. One night, his dad came home late and we happened to come back from a bar we had visited, and all he had for dinner was a plate of green beans from the garden, dressed with some oil from the Garda lake, and polenta. No more.
Those days I spent in Veneto, it rained a lot. Yet, I started associating polenta to that feeling of welcome, warmth and kindness, like the sun coming out after a big storm, like the burst of flowers in bloom when spring is in full swing. I felt a little fire kindling inside my heart, and I left veneto with a bag of that same polenta I had in that house on the sea in Caorle.
Then I met Zaira. At her home, I tried white Venetian polenta for the first time. When we went to S. Stino di Livenza to shoot a job for a client, we tasted the most delicious polentas from ancient varietes of corn: red polenta, white polenta…as well as al the other Venetians, including Valeria (who has a book coming out soon!!) who is definitely a great resource for polenta.
But this is a story for another time.
What made my love for polenta come full circle was Marco.
He is a chef and gastronomy specialist, hailing from Udine, in Friuli, but living in Parma. He had something that reminded me of Daniele: the same square glasses framing his face, the same kind smile. When he takes off his glasses, his short-sighted eyes go from tiny licorice-black pepitas to large, deer-ish irises. I love looking at him in the eyes when he talks about food: they light up, and their light reminds me of the sensation of that little warm fire kindling inside my heart. La polenta va bene con tutto, he says, in his nordic accent which is slightly reminiscent of that of Veneto, but slightly sweeter. Polenta goes with everything.
Even his name seems to hint at his bond with polenta: Furmenti, his last name, reminds me of the word furment, which in Romagna dialect indicates the kind of coarsely ground corn used to either make polenta in ancient times or to feed the hens. So I have been calling him Polenta since day one. Funny, isn’t it?
He works at Podere Stuard, the place where I took these incredible photos. Podere Stuard is a large farmhouse in the middle of the countryside, but minutes away from Parma, surrounded by greenhouses, fruit orchards and freely scuttling hens, turkeys and roosters, all of which – veg, fruit and animals – of heirloom varieties and races. They grow over 150 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and chillies and rediscovered some incredible forgotten varieties of delicious produce. The farmhouses here are a strange architectural mix of those found in Emilia, square and almost castle-like, and those found in Veneto, with large arched porticos called barchesse. Under the Podere’s porticos, herbs, garlic and chillies hang to dry. I can see Marco working on the kitchen through the old glass door under one of the porticos. In this spring bursting with flowers, the warmth of the sun feels very similar to that polenta feeling I got in Caorle.
‘In Friuli, polenta is made in a copper pot,’ he explains. ‘Technically, polenta is only properly made when it completely detaches from the pot and creates a crust, rather than sticking. It is stirred with a long wooden oar-like spoon, and it is cooked over an open fire in a fireplace or over a traditional stove. When poured over a wooden board – or rather, unmolded, it is left to set a bit and cut with a cotton thread – it would stick to any knife. My grandpa was the one who always did it. To us, it was a ritual.
To us, people from Friuli, polenta made in a copper pot and cut with cotton thread is what fresh pasta made with a rolling pin and fresh eggs is to you in Romagna’. And once again, ‘food’ is what we had as kids. In our memories, we are all brothers.
Marco loved polenta so much that he somehow made my love for it explode as well, like a girl who is sold over a grand gesture from her guy at their third date.
I wanted to try polenta with a fully vegetarian/vegan sauce for the longest time, and I think I really nailed this one. I used a simplified recipe for a ragu made with spring vegetables that my mom usually makes for tagliatelle, and added seeds to the polenta for added protein and nutrients.
This recipe looks long, but it is super easy to make. You can even make the spring ragu and pea pod cream in advance, or, if you cannot be bothered to make the cream, use some good pesto of your choice. Do not even think of using instant polenta. Try and find stone-milled polenta: the best quality one will have several black speckles, meaning it is whole and stone-milled. If you really cannot find polenta, you could try this recipe with grits. I am sure it is not the same, but I don’t see why it could not work. I got my polenta from Podere Stuard’s shop, produced by Pederzani. This recipe would be even better if you let the polenta set, then cut it into slices and griddle it, so that it will get crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Then spoon the cream/pesto and ragu on top as if it were bruschetta.
It is an earthy, abundant, and delicious dish!
Marco says he would like to steal the recipe for a vegan dinner he is planning.
Coming from the king of polenta, it sure is more than flattery.
Seeded Polenta with Simple Spring Ragu & Pea Pod Cream
A scant ¼ cup mixed seeds (sunflower, chia, sesame...)
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
(For a non-vegan version: 3 heaping tablespoons grated pecorino or parmigiano)
FOR THE SPRING RAGU
1 - 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
½ small onion
200g shelled fava beans
200g fresh peas, shelled
5-6 wild asparagus spears (optional)
½ cup vegetable stock (or water plus ½ teaspoon veg bouillon)
Salt and pepper to taste
FOR THE CREAM
The pods from the peas
½ small onion, chopped
1 cup vegetable stock
¼ cup packed basil leaves, chopped
3-4 long chives, chopped
Salt to taste
Extra virgin olive oil (preferably garlic or basil flavored)
Fresh chives and chive flowers
Shaved pecorino or parmigiano (skip if keeping vegan, and use toasted seeds instead)
MAKE THE SPRING RAGU
Add the olive oil and garlic to a pot and heat the oil on medium low, until the garlic sizzles slightly and flavors the oil.
Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, until translucent.
Add the fava beans, peas, asparagus if using and stir well. Cook for a couple minutes, then add the stock/water and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until the liquid has evaporated and the vegetables are cooked, about 10 minutes. Check for salt.
MAKE THE PEA POD CREAM
If you cannot be bothered to make this, use any good pesto instead of this.
Remove all the strings from the pea pods. Add the pods, onion and stock to a pot and bring to a boil. Cook until the pods are tender, about 30 minutes. Drain, reserving the stock, and blend with the basil, chives and a good pinch of salt. Add a little stock of the cream seems to thick, but we are aiming at a fairly thick consistency.
Pass the cream through a sieve, pushing it with the back of a spoon, to get rid of all the stringy parts of the pods.
MAKE THE POLENTA
Add the water to a pot and bring to a simmer - not a boil. When bubbles appear on the bottom of the pan and the water smokes, start adding the polenta, little by little, and whisking constantly and vigorously. This is important to avoid the formation of clumps. Bring the heat to low and stir well. Add the seeds, oil and salt, and stir well again. Let the polenta cook for about 30 to 40 minutes, stirring every 5-10 minutes. Refer to the instructions on the package for exact cooking time. If you want to use cheese (super tasty addition) stir it in when the polenta is almost ready. When the polenta is ready, immediately transfer it to a serving dish. If you time things right, you should have all three parts of the recipe ready at the same time.
If you're not keeping the recipe vegan, add a couple tablespoons of grated pecorino or parmigiano when the polenta is done cooking, and stir it in. Delicious!
SERVE AND GARNISH
Spoon the pea pod cream (or a little pesto if not making the cream), then the spring ragu on top of the polenta. Drizzle with good extra virgin olive oil, preferably basil or garlic or lemon flavored, and chopped chives and chive flowers. If keeping vegan, sprinkle some toasted seeds. Otherwise, some pecorino or parmigiano shavings would be great!
When you eat polenta, I hope you will think of this warm feeling. I hope you will feel that soft warmth of spring, when everything feels velvety and tepid, like the feathers of the chicks and petals of every flower. Think of those elderly people from Veneto and Friuli stirring polenta over the coals.
And think of those who are their grandchildren. I am sure that you can feel a little bit like them at every bite, and I am sure the polenta will be tenfold as delicious.