Wild fennel, called marathos in Greek (marathon, from the ancient Greek Marathon, literally means refers to a specific place in Attica once blanketed in wild fennel), is the herb that perfumes Ikaria in the springtime. Wild fennel is characterized by its feathery leaves and potent, anise-like aroma. While it’s a favorite all over the Aegean, cooks on Ikaria consider it something like a local specialty. On the island, wild fennel goes into everything from Easter rice stuffing for goat or lamb, individual savory pies, black-eyed pea or broad bean salads, pasta, and the simplest of dishes, pictured here: potatoes, onions and garlic braised in olive oil and water or white wine then seasoned with a heap of freshly picked wild fennel. It’s a classic Lenten dish and on Ikaria it’s called patatato. In the U.S., the only place I have ever seen wild fennel is in N. California. To make patatato, peel 5 potatoes and cut into chunks. Place in cold water. Sweat 2 red onions or 8 scallions in 3 tablespoons olive oil. Add the potatoes, enough white wine or water to cover them (or a mixture of both), and sea salt to taste. Cover and simmer until the potatoes are almost cooked, about 25 minutes. Add 1 cup chopped wild fennel and a bit more water if necessary. Cover and continue simmering til tender. Stir in the juice of either half or one lemon (to taste) and sprinkle with rose peppercorns. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Peas in a Pot with Fennel, Sun-dried Tomatoes and Mussels