Most of the memories I have of my father’s parents revolve around food. Due to the complicated nature of family, I didn’t grow up around them to the extent I did my mother’s parents. With the latter, we were together almost every weekend, vacationed together, and lived mere blocks away for the first few years of my life. My grandparents on my Dad’s side, Rose & John (seen below with my great grandmother between them), lived in apartment projects for the elderly in Hoboken, NJ, before it’s renaissance of the past decade. They were complicated people. Always kind to me, but there was a persistent and underlying tension present because of my dad’s strained relationship with his father stemming back to childhood.
As a result, we didn’t visit often and when we did, it was more a result of my mom having to work on a weekend and my father thinking he could kill two birds with one stone: visit his parents and get us fed well at the same time. Though my memories of them are few and fleeting – they both passed within a year or so of one another when I was in the range of 10-11 years old – gathering around their tiny kitchen table with the heavy, clear, vinyl tablecloth remains one that is firmly in place.
Seated here, I marveled at the food they turned out of their tiny kitchen – dishes and ingredients that were largely unfamiliar to me, but which introduced me to the culture of this side of my family (Italian-American) that my mother’s side seemed less connected to. Fish cakes made with baccala at Christmas, celery logs stuffed with blue cheese alongside antipasto, the very best rice balls (arancini if you’re fancy) that I’ve had in my life – all of these things laid across the table with the gentle encouragement to try new things and flavors.
It’s from my grandparents that I fell in love with fennel. What 7 year old is like, “More fennel, Grandma!” but that was me. I happily crunched on it between courses as a palate cleanser (I knew nothing of this, of course, only that it was delicious and crunchtastic) and marveled at its completely different flavor when my grandfather served it baked as a gratin aside homemade braciola. They had me hooked on fennel early and my love for it is still going strong.
This pizza brings together the sweet taste of cooked, caramelized fennel and the slight anise flavor it has raw by scattering some of the fennel fronds over top. Layered with sautéed onions and creamy fontina cheese, it’s a delicious take on a vegetarian pizza option and works well right in your oven or, now that it’s warming up, on the grill. Serve it with a big salad for dinner or cut it into small strips for an appetizer; it’s completely malleable to all kinds of meals and occasions. If you’re not sure that you like fennel, or have only had it raw, give this recipe a try. The transformation between raw and cooked is night and day and that sweet flavor, coupled with the salty cheese, and the garlic and onions make for a perfect mouthful. Take it from 7-year-old me and give fennel a try!
Fennel, Onion & Fontina Pizza
Yields one pizza
1 pizza dough
1 bulb of fennel
1 large onion
2 cloves of garlic, minced
7 ounces of fontina cheese, grated
1 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese
Salt & pepper
1-2 Tablespoons of cornmeal
Remove your pizza dough from the refrigerator about 20-30 minutes before you’re going to assemble your pizza so that it has time to soften a bit and becomes pliable. Sprinkle cornmeal over baking sheet and set aside. Preheat oven to 425°F.
In a small bowl, pour 1/3 cup of olive oil and add two cloves of minced garlic and some cracked black pepper. Microwave on high for 30 seconds, or until you just start to smell the garlic, and remove. Set aside.
Peel the onion and slice in half, cutting uniform 1/4″ half-moon slices. In a large, non-stick frying pan, drizzle 2 teaspoons of olive oil and apply a medium high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally. Once the edges start to turn brown, drop the heat to medium and cook until they are brown throughout and slightly translucent. Before removing them from the pan, salt and pepper them lightly, stir, cook an additional minute or two and then set aside in a separate bowl. Return the pan to the stove and drizzle with an additional teaspoon or so of olive oil. Remove the fennel stems and peel off the first layer of the bulb. Slice the bulb in half and cut each half into 1/4″ half moons. Sauté the sliced fennel over medium heat with a little bit of salt and pepper, allowing it to cook until softened and golden.
Unroll the pizza dough and stretch it accordingly to form the crust. When the dough has reached the size and shape you’d like, brush it with the garlic-infused olive oil and place in the oven for 5 minutes. While the crust is par-baking, grate the fontina and pick off some of the fennel fronds and set aside. Remove the par-baked crust from the oven and layer the onions and fennel over top. Top vegetables with both cheeses and cover with fresh cracked black pepper. Drizzle with a little olive oil if desired and bake for 10-12 minutes or until crust is golden brown and cheese is completely melted and bubbling. When finished, remove from oven, sprinkle with fennel fronds, and allow to stand for 5 minutes before slicing.
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