Ingredients: shrimp, tomato, fennel, breadcrumbs, feta, absinthe, fish stock, onion, garlic, chive, oregano, parsley, mint, bay leaf, sugar, olive oil, butter, black pepper, salt.
Served with: basmati rice.
I’d been wanting to try a dish with stewed fennel and tomato, as I happen to like fennel but don’t have a single “go-to” recipe for it. Part of the problem is that my mom never cooked with fennel, so its distinctive licorice flavor is not “intuitive” to me. What I mean is that I have to think pretty hard when I’m planning a fennel dish, because I can’t fall back on memories of what works and what doesn’t.
What I decided to make was a variation/bastardization of the Greek dish garides saganaki, which is basically jumbo shrimp in herby tomato sauce, topped with feta cheese and broiled. I figured it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to work some fennel into the tomato stew. I was also excited to accent the dish with flambéed absinthe (an analogue to the anise-flavored Greek liqueur ouzo).
I started by sautéing sliced fennel and onion in olive oil, then adding some crushed garlic and a bay leaf before emptying in a can of whole peeled tomatoes (plus a pinch of sugar to counteract the acidity). For some reason, whole tomatoes give me better results than diced, crushed, or puréed tomatoes, so that’s what I use exclusively.
While the tomatoes stewed, I prepped my tiger shrimp and tossed the shells into a pan with some butter, planning to rescue their flavor before discarding them. When the shells became pink, I added some fish stock, plus a splash of absinthe (the good stuff, not that neon green crap). Then, like a pro, I held a lighter to the pan to burn off the alcohol and develop the liqueur’s flavor. I also singed the hair off the back of my right hand. It was all on purpose, and it was way cool. I then strained the shrimp broth and added it to the tomato and fennel stew. I also removed the bay leaf, and added some oregano and parsley (which I like to postpone as long as possible, to preserve their flavor).
Next to prepare was the topping. I crumbled a block of feta into a bowl, and mixed in a handful of prepared breadcrumbs, plus some larger cubes from a slice of stale bread. I seasoned this mixture with salt, pepper, oregano, parsley, mint, and fresh chives, plus a tablespoon of olive oil.
I mixed the raw shrimp into the tomato & fennel, then poured it into a casserole and sprinkled the breadcrumb & feta on top. The dish was complete after about 10 minutes in the oven. I couldn’t wait to dig in!
Overall, this was very tasty. The tomatoes were warm and comforting, the shrimp tender and sweet-salty, the breadcrumbs crunchy and cheesy. I also loved the licorice accent from the fennel and absinthe, which kept making me think of Italian sausage. I would use twice as much feta next time though, and I’d skip the tiny breadcrumbs (the large ones were great) because they absorbed too much of the broth.