After a weekend of canning tomatoes, including a lovely Provençale-style tomato sauce with orange and rosemary, I had a little leftover sauce, a leftover half of an orange (precious at this time of year) and a large (3-foot-long) bulb of Florence fennel with stalks and fronds intact, courtesy of our CSA farm. I hadn’t figured out our weekday night supper, and this combo just sprung to mind. I used the delicious sauce for pasta (manicotti stuffed with ricotta seasoned with fennel frond pesto and orange zest) but in a more prosperous time, I might have used the sauce as a base for a simply baked white fish topped it with Niçoise olives.
I like braising fennel in citrus, typically using lemon. Here, orange juice and zest complemented the tomatoes and provided a kick that was tweaked by the salty and grassy fennel frond pesto.
This isn’t that complicated but there are a few independent steps if you make the dish that I did. You are first going to prepare the fennel, braising the bulb and stalks in olive oil, salt and orange juice, and turning the fronds into pesto. While the fennel is braising, you can prepare the tomato-orange sauce. If you are making manicotti, while the fennel and tomato sauce are simmering, you should boil the manicotti shells, and make a ricotta filling, which contains fennel fronds and orange zest, and fill the cooled manicotti shells. Finally, combine the tomato sauce with the braised fennel and spoon it over the top of the filled manicotti.
Baked Manicotti with Tomato-Orange-Fennel Sauce
5-6 dried manicotti shells (or use fresh pasta sheets that you can roll yourself)
1 c ricotta cheese
2 tbsp fennel frond pesto (see below)
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Optional: grated parmesan cheese
Tomato-Orange-Fennel Sauce (see below)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Boil the manicotti shells (or fresh pasta sheets) in a large pot of water until slightly under al dente stage. Drain and cool.
Beat the ricotta cheese, fennel frond pesto, egg, salt and pepper together, adding the optional cheese at the end.
Fill the cooled manicotti shells with the ricotta cheese mixture.
Spoon a little tomato sauce on the bottom of a baking dish and place the filled manicotti on top. Spoon the tomato-orange-fennel sauce over the manicotti. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese if desired.
Bake for approximately 30 minutes or until bubbling. Set aside to cool for 10 minutes before serving.
6-8 plum tomatoes
1 clove garlic, minced
Juice of ½ orange
½ tsp orange zest
Fennel braised with orange juice (see below)
1 tbsp fennel frond pesto (see below)
Core the tomatoes and roughly chop them. Lightly cook the garlic in olive oil and add the tomatoes, turning the heat up so that the tomatoes boil and exude their liquid. Turn the heat down after about 5 minutes and simmer, crushing the tomatoes with the back of a spoon, for about 10 minutes. Add the orange juice and zest, and salt to taste and simmer for at least 5 minutes.
To finish the sauce, add the braised fennel and the fennel frond pesto.
Fennel Braised with Orange Juice
I small bulb of young fennel with stalks (and leaves)
1 tbsp olive oil
Juice of ½ orange
½ tsp orange zest
Water (or chicken broth)
Trim the stalks from the bulb. Trim the base of the bulb, cut it in half vertically, remove the core, slicing it very thin, and slice the bulb vertically into slivers. Remove the fronds from the stalks and reserve them for another use. Thinly slice the stalks on the diagonal.
Warm the olive oil in a saucepan and sauté the fennel lightly, add the orange juice and zest, cover the pot and braise until crisp tender, 10 minutes or less. Check occasionally and add water as needed, continuing to braise until the vegetables are tender. Season with salt to taste. Before serving, add a little orange juice to spark the flavor.
Fennel Frond Pesto
Strip the fennel fronds from the stalks and place them in a food processor. Add chopped garlic, salt and a little olive oil, and process them to a medium-fine consistency.