Small, Good Things: If Memory Serves…

By Joe Dizney

How can the 28 days of February possibly seem so endless? My reptile brain has kicked into overtime and the promise of spring seems delusional as I watch accumulating piles of snow and lengthening icicles. Each morning it’s hard to react with anything other than a reflexive, animal tug at the blankets and a desire to hibernate until the thaw comes.

Not to get emotional about it but such base instincts don’t accommodate the higher mental functioning and long-term memory to support the fact that winter will end — someday in the foreseeable future — and a warm sun will shine on us again, birds will sing, plants will grow, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

But for now I am all in favor of forgetting this mess for a bit. I say it’s time to screw around with such prehensile reactions and respond with intentional and unrepentant sensual stimulation. I’m suggesting a metaphorical trip to Spain — seafood, saffron, fennel, tomatoes, pepper, garlic, onions. Are you with me?

Catalan White Beans & ShrimpThis meal, based on a Nancy Jenkins recipe (adapted from The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook) is like all cherished memories, layered, calling to mind a variety of warm and pleasant associations. And although the ingredients are admittedly neither local nor particularly seasonal, they are generally available, and isn’t this season just what we’re trying to forget.

Here, in my cerebral Catalonia, a bed of creamy white beans — stewed with mounds of aromatic, anise-fragrant fennel — form a bed for a peppery, saffron-tomato sauce in which fresh shrimp are poached until just done. The (optional) addition of the traditional dry pork sausage (bacon would be an acceptable substitute) is even more authentic but not at all necessary.

A note on ingredients and preparation: Canned cherry tomatoes are an under-utilized winter ingredient. For some reason the sweeter taste and texture of a quick sauce made from this culinary secret weapon is superior to the typical processed varieties. I’ve found them locally at Adams Fairacre Farms.

The beans, of course, can stand on their own (particularly if you add the sausage), but the saffron-tomato sauce is a great preparation to have around for other uses. I spooned a bit of it over grouper filets, which I baked for about 20 minutes to a VERY pleasant effect, and I can imagine using it with other firm-fleshed fish or even diver scallops with similar success. Both basic preparations will obviously freeze well for special last-minute dinners.

I also recently discovered an admittedly luxurious-but-unnecessary ingredient and possible addition: fennel pollen, available from Spice and Tease in the Grand Central Market. Lightly dusted over the final plate, it provides an over-the-top memory jog that will help leave this frozen North behind — if only for the moment. Shades of Marseilles and bouillabaisse!

But that’s a different fantasy …

White Beans and Fennel with Shrimp, Tomato and Saffron

Serves 6-8 as a main course

For the beans:

1 cup dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight, drained

¼ cup olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

3-4 cloves garlic, minced

2 bulbs fennel, chopped coarsely

1-2 small links botifarras ( or linguiça (pork) sausage, diced (optional)

4 cups water or vegetable stock

For the shrimp:

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

3-4 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup olive oil

28 ounces canned cherry tomatoes in sauce

1 teaspoon raw sugar

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

Pinch, saffron threads, crumbled

1 cup dry white wine

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1½ pounds medium shrimp, peeled

For garnish:

¼ cup reserved fennel fronds or chopped flat-leaf parsley

¼ cup thinly sliced fennel

Zest of one lemon

1. The beans: In the bottom of a heavy stockpot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. If using the sausage, just barely brown it first. Add the onion and garlic, cooking until the vegetables are tender but not colored. Add fennel and sauté until barely soft. Add drained beans along with water or stock (to cover by 1 inch).  Bring to a boil, turn heat to simmer and cook until the beans are tender, about 45 minutes. (You may need to add liquid from time to time.) When the beans are tender season with salt and pepper. Remove the pot from the heat, and set aside.

2. The tomato sauce: In another saucepan, prepare the tomato sauce. Sauté the onion and garlic in the additional oil. At about 5 minutes, add dried chili flakes and continue cooking until vegetables are tender but not browned – 10 to 15 minutes. Add tomatoes, and sugar, raise the heat slightly, and continue cooking for another 5 to 10 minutes until the sauce thickens a bit. Add the saffron and wine raising the heat to high. Cook, stirring frequently, about 5 to 7 minutes.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Note: The beans and tomato sauce can be prepared separately up to a day ahead of time. When ready to serve, gently reheat beans and tomato sauce in separate pots. When reheating the beans, add water or stock to loosen as necessary.

3. With the tomato sauce just barely simmering, add shrimp and cook briefly, until barely colored (@ 4-5 minutes).

4. To serve, spoon the beans in shallow bowls and top with the shrimp and tomato sauce in the center of each bowl. Garnish with the fennel fronds or minced parsley, sliced fennel and a few curls of lemon zest.

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