Where would Italian food in the US be without Marcella Hazan? As much as I treasure my Campanian and Puglian food roots, I am forever thankful for the horizons that Marcella’s 1973 Classic Italian Cooking opened up for me. And even almost 40 years later, she continues to inspire. Here is my take on a lovely recipe that, for me, epitomizes Marcella’s special genius, from her Essentials of Italian Cooking, recently released as an e-book. (And if you don’t own it, you absolutely must get it.)
Marcella’s recipe calls for a whole fish, which is the way I think most Italians would make it. Fish on the bone, like meat on the bone, does have better flavor. But here in the US fillets are much easier to come by and, it must be admitted, quicker to cook and easier to serve and eat. So I have adapted her recipe for fillets. I have also made one other little tweak: rather than making the entire dish on the stove, I use a two-step process, braising the fennel then finishing the dish in a hot oven. That ensures the will cook more evenly and avoid the need to turn the fish over, which can be a bit awkward for the novice cook. The short time it takes to cook fillets ensures that the dish will not dry out.
Ingredients (to serve 4)
4 fillets firm-fleshed fish
3 large fennel bulbs (with fronds if possible), trimmed and thinly sliced
salt and pepper
1 clove garlic, split in half
Fennel fronds, finely minced
Fresh herbs such as rosemary or marjoram, finely minced
Cover the bottom of a capacious sauté pan with a generous coating of olive oil, then add your sliced fennel, a splash of water and sprinkle with salt. Give it all a good turn to coat the fennel slices, then cover and let the fennel simmer for about 15-20 minutes, or until the fennel has become very tender. While the fennel is simmering, uncover from time to time and give it all a very gentle turn—or, if you are feeling a bit adventurous, a flip, which will be less bruising to the fennel. Either way, however, by the end of the cooking, the fennel is likely to have broken up, which is perfectly fine.
Uncover the fennel and raise the heat to cook off all the excess liquid in the pan, turning (or flipping) the fennel frequently. If you like, you can let the fennel go a bit longer to caramelize it a bit. Season generously with salt and pepper. I like to add a handful of the fronds, finely minced, to the fennel just before removing it from the heat for some extra fennel flavor. Or you can add some fresh herbs if you like, like rosemary or marjoram.
Grease a gratin dish large enough to hold your fish fillets in a single layer (which, if you like, you will have rubbed with a split garlic clove) and into which you lay the fennel to make a ‘bed’ for your fish.
Season the fish fillets with salt and pepper and lightly oil them as well. Then lay the fillets in the gratin dish on top of the bed of fennel.
Roast the fish and fennel is a hot oven (200°C/400°F) for about 10-15 minutes, or until the fish is just done, taking care not to overcook the fish.
Serve the fillets on to plates, with a generous heap of fennel—which by now will have turned into a rough purée—on top of each fillet.
NOTES: If you are serving this dish as a piatto unico (ie, without a preceding first course of pasta, rice or soup) then a few steamed potatoes on the side rounds things out very nicely.
Marcella recommends red snapper for this dish, although most Italian recipes I’ve seen call for orata (sea bream), branzino or swordfish. It is also very good (but different) made with the assertive mackerel (merluzzo). Really, any firm-fleshed fish will do nicely. Last night we had good ‘ol American catfish fillets. They were very economical and perfectly delicious made this way.
For whatever reason, I usually associate the pairing of fish and vegetables with Ligurian cooking, but this dish actually hails from Sicily, or so they say. It should not be surprising, then, that some versions of this recipe call for adding pachini (cherry tomatoes), capers and/or olives, which, of course, give the dish a lot more zest. But personally, I like the mellow flavors of fish and fennel without much else to get in the way. It is another example of culinary balance, this time with two flavors complementing, rather than contrasting, each other.