As we move from summer into autumn, fennel moves from the salad bowl to the cooking pot – with brilliantly mouthwatering results
I ate some fennel dumplings in Sicily last summer that knocked my socks off. I eat a lot of dumplings, wherever and whenever I can, so it’s rare to come across any that truly surprise me, but these somehow managed to showcase their main ingredients – the fennel, currants, parmesan and tomato that are so characteristic of Sicilian cooking – while having such a depth of flavour that I was sure something else had to be going on in there. At first I thought it must be some secret ingredient – was there a little mince in there, maybe? – but it turned out to be the way the fennel was cooked.
Eating, and cooking, as much as I do, at first I found my ignorance rather thrilling, but that soon turned to frustration when I tried to recreate those dumplings back home. I stayed none the wiser until I stumbled upon a blogpost that shone light on the subject: the trick, it turns out, is to cook the fennel until soft before mixing it with breadcrumbs (which do so much work behind the scenes in Sicilian kitchens). Cooking it right down turns fennel into something very different from the thin, raw slices we have in salads, and is just one way to show how this little bulb provides comfort and warmth as we move from one season to the next.