I have a clear vision of the first time that I tasted roasted fennel. I was sitting in the classroom of a cooking school in Santa Barbara attending a class given by the woman I credit for giving me the foundation for being a serious cook-Lynne Rossetto Kasper. It had been about fifteen years since I had the pleasure of attending a class with this phenomenal cook. I had seen a notice in the Los Angeles Times that she would be giving a class and I knew I had to attend and how hard is it to have to go to Santa Barbara?!
Lynne had recently released her award winning cookbook “The Splendid Table” on the food of Emilia Romagna and this class was probably part of a promotional tour. I had fond memories of the many hours I spent listening to her talk about food and sharing her passion and I knew that whatever she was cooking, it would be great.
The original recipe calls for rabbit but Lynne used chicken thighs for this class, explaining that they are a great substitute if you can’t find rabbit, or can’t bear to think of cooking one. I have to be honest and admit that I’ve always used chicken but now that I’ve eaten rabbit various times in Italy I will seek out rabbit and go with the original recipe.
I have made many a convert to fennel with this dish. If you’ve tasted raw fennel you know that it has a very distinct licorice-like taste. It is crisp and so flavorful and I love it dipped in a little coarse salt. When roasted with olive oil it becomes meltingly tender and its flavor mellows out and it hardly resembles its original form. Along with roasted onions and garlic, the fennel is a wonderful counterpoint to the roasted meat. Each bite is better than the next and I’ve yet to serve this dish to anyone who wasn’t thrilled by it.
Coniglio Al Forno Con Finnochio
(Rabbit Toasted With Sweet Fennel)
1 rabbit (about 2-1/2 pounds) cut into 8 pieces or 8 skinless chicken thighs
1 large garlic clove, chopped
1 branch fresh rosemary (about 1 inch), chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 bulbs fresh fennel (I like to use more), cored and cut into wedges
1 large onion, cut into wedges
3 ounces pancetta, minced
3 cloves garlic, split
1 teaspoon fennel seed, coarsely ground
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh fennel leaves
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup stock
Make a paste of 1 clove garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper and rub over rabbit or chicken. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least a few hours, but better if you do it the night before.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the meat in a roasting pan (large enough to hold meat and vegetables in a single layer). Scatter the vegetables and garlic around the meat, and add fennel seed, pancetta and fennel tops. Sprinkle with olive oil. Roast 1/2 hour, basting often with juices. Pour in the wine and roast for about an hour, basting often and turning pieces. Add a little water if the juices are drying up. Lynne’s recipe calls for turning the oven to 450 for 15 minutes but I’ve never felt the need to do that. My chicken always seems to have a nice brown color and I think more time would dry it out a little. Maybe with rabbit, the extra time would be better.
Remove meat and vegetables from pan. Quickly make a sauce by setting roasting pan over burners and adding wine and stock. Scrape up the brown bits from the pan, boil liquid down to about half, pour into a small pitcher and serve with meat. Many times I forgo the sauce and just scrape everything form the pan onto the meat when serving!