It’s been a while since I posted a recipe.
Reading my pal Erin’s blog about calzones reminded me that this summer I took photos of how her lovingly-grown fennel became Fennel-Olive Pastries, after she asked me what I did with it. So, though fennel is far from in season near me, maybe it’s in season where you are, or maybe you can get some nice organic non-local fennel, or you can just mark this recipe for summertime.
If you’ve got the ever-present fear of phyllo (which everyone but me spells “fillo,” apparently—I pronounce it like fillo and spell it as if it would be pronounced “fy-lo,” what can ya do.), now’s your time to get over it! Don’t be scared of phyllo. It’s so much easier to work with than you think. And it’s insanely impressive, because we’re at such a place in our cooking culture that people are impressed by anything that uses any sort of dough whatsoever.
This dish, along with my Vegetable Phyllo Triangles with Dijon Mustard-Lentil Sauce (which I’ll post as well if I get sufficiently unlazy) is the most requested meal from my clients. I make the Vegetable Phyllo Triangles four times a year, which is pretty heavy rotation for me. I make these twice a year, in the late spring and early fall, when fennel is in season here in upstate NY.
Enough chatter, let’s get a move on.
I just realized that I didn’t actually take any photos of Erin’s gorgeous fennel before it was chopped up, which is a minor sin. Hopefully you know what fennel looks like.
Though working with phyllo is easy, there are secrets that make it much easier:
- First of all: buy Fillo Factory brand. It’s organic, the spelt phyllo is perfectly lovely if you’re a spelt fetishist, and it’s made of high-quality ingredients. Many health food stores carry it (if you’re in New Paltz: Health & Nutrition carries it sporadically, no one else ever has it. If they don’t have it, I can always sell you some at cost, I buy it by the case). Otherwise, read the ingredients on your sketchy supermarket brand to make sure it’s vegan.
- Then, defrost it in the refrigerator overnight. Otherwise, defrost it in the box, in the plastic for a few hours on the countertop. I can’t really express in words how much worse of an option this is than the overnight fridge defrost route. Your goal with phyllo is twofold: to keep it from drying out, and to keep it from tearing. A slow defrost is essential to both. If you yank it from the freezer into a hot kitchen, and especially if you then unwrap it, exposing it to the drying effects of air, you will get a roll of phyllo with every sheet most likely torn along each crease because it defrosted too quickly.
- Here’s the thing though: it’s still fine. You can work with torn phyllo, and no one will ever know the difference in the final product, I guarantee it. You, however, will know, because it is infinitely more headachey to work with ragged strips, rather than beautiful whole sheets, of phyllo. So save yourself the headache and defrost it slowly.
- After the slumber party in the fridge, in an ideal world you’d then let the box hang out on the counter top for an hour or so, smoothing out the transition from cool fridge to presumably hotter counter top. If you don’t have an hour, that’s cool—see the above paragraph.
- After that, you’re ready to go. There are two ways to work with phyllo at this point: working fast, or covering it with a damp cloth or paper towel sprinkled with water. The goal, again, is to keep it from drying out, which will cause it to tear and crumble. If you work fast enough there’s no need to mess around with the damp towel, but if you’re just starting out it makes sense to give yourself some extra time by using a towel. More below.
Fennel Olive Pastries
Makes about 40
- You can sneak small amounts of some leftover vegs into these that might be dying in the fridge. Jarred artichoke hearts are lovely in here. But resist the temptation to throw in a ton of random stuff, it will muddle up the flavor.
- Make sure to rinse the olives, otherwise they will be too salty.
- If your fennel has no fronds attached, reserve and do not chop a small handful of the dill. Use dill fronds as instructed to decorate triangles instead of fennel fronds. Use the rest of the dill as indicated.
- These freeze ridiculously well.
Extra virgin olive oil, much more than you think you’ll need.
1 small fennel bulb (or two baby fennel bulbs), bulb finely chopped, fronds separated and set aside. Use all parts of the fennel that look fresh and green, especially the feathery fronds, but do not use any stalks coming out of the bulb that are hollow.
2 medium thinly sliced red onions
1 small bunch chopped dill (see note above)
2 cups pitted Kalamata olives, rinsed and chopped
3 teaspoons fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried oregano, chopped
1 teaspoon ground toasted fennel seeds or 2 tablespoons ouzo (fennel liqueur)
Optional: a few handfuls washed and chopped greens
1 pound phyllo dough, thawed in refrigerator if frozen (see above)
Sea salt and fresh pepper.
- In a large saucepot, warm a few splashes of olive oil over high heat. Add fennel bulb and sliced red onions and cook until beginning to brown, about 7 minutes.
- Add chopped dill, olives, oregano, fennel seeds, and greens, if using, and stir to combine. Turn off heat and let cool.
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Lightly oil two baking sheets, or line with parchment. (I never do this, but I want to make sure yours come out perfectly, and I am afraid you won’t use the massive amounts of oil necessary to make these not stick to the baking sheet.)
- Lay one sheet of phyllo on work surface. Cover the rest of the roll with a damp towel (do as I say and not as I do in the photo above).
- Brush sheet with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and pepper. Use enough oil to make everything slightly juicy, otherwise your triangles will be dry and not flavorful enough. Think about it this way: every bit of phyllo without some oil caressing it will be too dry and crumbly, and won’t have the full flavor that olive oil provides. Make sure pretty much all of it has a nice, thin oily sheen. Yay for fat!
- On the short edge to your left, place four small (about one to two-inch) fennel fronds side by side with about one inch of space in between. Lay another sheet of phyllo on top, oil and season it, and cut into four strips.*
- Place 2 tablespoons of so of cooled filling on the edge of phyllo opposite the fennel, and roll up like a flag. (It would have been really helpful if I had taken pictures of this part of the process.) Don’t use more than around two tablespoons of the filling–less is always more, and you will be astonished at how little you need. Too much filling will make messy, broken triangles.
- The fennel fronds from the left edge should be visible through the phyllo when rolled up (if they aren’t it’s cool—they are just for show. In fact, feel free to skip that whole step). Brush triangles with oil and place on baking sheet. Continue until all filling is used up. Sprinkle each filled baking sheet with coarse salt and fresh-ground pepper.
- Bake until phyllo is golden brown, about 20 minutes, turning halfway through. Cool slightly and serve, or cool completely, wrap well, and freeze.
*Please note that though I like the size of triangles when the sheet of phyllo is cut into four strips, These photos illustrate triangles made with phyllo sheets cut into three strips, because that’s how I usually make them for my clients. I made a few with the phyllo cut into four strips, though, see them there at the top of the baking sheet, next to the fennel? Three strips makes a bit more of a hearty, meal-like triangle. Four strips makes a nice appetizery, dainty, prettier triangle, which is especially suited to this recipe and its strong flavors.