Fennel & walnut croquettes

Fennel and walnut croquettes

Fennel and walnut croquettes

Olga Von Till was born in the 1890s. As a girl she lived in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She played piano for silent movies, providing a soundtrack for their voiceless antics. She was sent to Hungary to study with Bela Bartok, and became stranded there when World War I broke out. She made a living as a companion for wealthy, eccentric women. When she returned home she lived in New York City for a while, and she taught classical piano to Bill Evans, amongst many others. In the 80s she lived in a small town next to New Brunswick, and it was at that point that I met her – she was my piano teacher all through high school. She was an intimidating teacher, exacting and persistent. She heard the tone of each note, and she heard the silence between notes, which were as important as the notes themselves, and needed to be given their exact space, their exact weight. Ms. Von Till would hold your arm with her strong hands, feeling the muscles, and she’d put her hand under your hand, so that your fingers stretched to the piano keys from a seemingly impossible height, but with just the right force when they finally touched. She had a hard round belly that she’d prop a blank music-lined book on, and she’d write careful instructions for the week’s practice in strange and wonderful felt tip pens that I coveted, but never found in the real world. She had two pairs of glasses, one with round thick lenses and gold frames, and one with horn-rimmed frames and small blue flowers. Everything in her house was exactly as she wanted it, and she could tell you stories about choosing the fabric on the walls or the rugs on the floor. She had two steinway grands, and she talked about them as if they were living creatures – each had its own tone, its own voice. Her husband Sam played the violin, and he’d been a child prodigy, but his career had been disappointing. He heard music in his head, and would gesture passionately as he listened to it. I was a mediocre student, we all knew I would never amount to much as a pianist. But I loved to sit with Ms Von Till. After I left for college, I would visit her every time I came home. I’d bring her flowers every time, and I’d sit and listen to her stories. As she got older, she wouldn’t come down the stairs, and we’d sit upstairs in her study, side by side. She would tell stories of her remarkable life, sometimes the same stories over and over, but they were worth hearing again. She’d hold my arm, and feel the muscles, she’d support my hand with her strong hands. She could tell I hadn’t been playing piano. Sometimes we’d sit in silence, and then she’d look at me with a beaming smile through her thick round lenses. I didn’t talk much, she couldn’t have known much about me, but I felt that she loved me. I felt that she was a good friend, despite the more than seventy years between us. I still dream about her sometimes, about the world that she created with her music, her elegance, her strength, her stories, and her expectations.

Obviously I admired her very much! So this week’s Sunday interactive playlist will be about songs of admiration for other musicians. The tribute can be in the lyrics or in the tunes. I thought I had a lot of these stored up, but I’m struggling, so I need your help!

And these fennel croquettes – I wanted to have a combination of comforting and wintery and bright and fresh and summery. I used fresh thyme and fresh rosemary, and I made them light and crispy. But they also have bread crumbs and melty cheese to get you through the winter evening. We ate them with a simple tomato sauce, but you could eat them with any kind of sauce you like.

Here’s the interactive playlist as it stands so far. Feel free to add whatever you can think of!


1 medium-sized fennel bulb – core and feathers removed, and chopped into 1/3 inch dice
1 T olive oil
1 small shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 t fresh thyme
2 t fresh rosemary
1/3 cup white wine
1 t smoked paprika
1/2 cup walnuts toasted and chopped into small pieces
3 pieces whole wheat bread, processed into crumbs
2 eggs
1 t balsamic
salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper
1 cup mozzarella, cut into 1/4 inch cubes

In a large frying pan over medium heat warm the olive oil. Add the shallot, cook for a minute or two, add the garlic and herbs, cook until the garlic starts to brown, and then add the fennel. Stir and fry until the fennel is quite brown – five or ten minutes. Then add the wine and cook until the pan is dry and the fennel is quite soft.

Tip the fennel into a big bowl, and add the walnuts, bread crumbs, balsamic, smoked paprika, salt and pepper. Stir in the eggs and cheese. You should have a sticky sort of batter.

Preheat the oven to 425.

Spread a layer of olive oil on a baking sheet. Form the batter into patties about 2 inches across, and press them onto the oiled sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes, until golden and crispy. Turn once or twice to ensure that both sides get crispy. Serve with simple tomato sauce, or any sauce you like.

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21 thoughts on “Fennel & walnut croquettes

  1. Tom Petty wrote High In The Morning about Heartbreakers bass player Howie Epstein, who died in 2003 from problems brought about by his heroin use.

    • Thanks. I feel like my brain wasn’t working properly today, and I could never do her justice anyway. I wish I could remember everything better! I wish I’d recorded all of her stories somehow.

  2. …and Charles Mingus wrote Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love too.

    The Commodores first single without Lionel Richie, was Nightshift, about Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye, soon after they’d both died. ….sweet sounds, coming down, on the nightshift….. I bet you’re singing loud, I bet you pull a crowd

    I can’t get Spotify on this device without paying, which isn’t a complaint about paying for music, but just a practicality as to why I’m just naming tunes.

  3. Your memories of your piano teacher prompted me to ask the internet about my violin teacher from school. I’d been thinking of her as well because of this over on the ‘Spill.

    Her name was Mabel Willis-Browne, and your description of a patient teacher and never-likely-to-be-a-star pupil rang many bells with me. She was kind and patient and never gave up as long as I wanted to try and learn. Musical too – the local teachers had their own orchestra, and I remember her at the front of the viola section with tears rolling down her face as they played some Manuel de Falla. I remember a friend telling me she used to play swing and dance music in her younger days, and it turns out that it was recorded.

    She was in Ivy Benson’s all-female dance band during World War Two. There are a couple of albums on Spotify, here they are with Stardust ! Lovely music, lovely teachers.

      • Oh, that’s dreamy! That sounds like stardust.

        THank you!

        It’s funny how when you’re little you never imagine that somebody you know might have had a full and wonderful life before you knew them. (And by little I’m going young teenager on this one.)

      • I often wonder about the staff in old people’s homes – do they realise that the people they’re looking after (sometimes not very well) had full and wonderful lives too? And do they even care?

      • Thank you Claire.

        TFD, I’m vexed about this too, especially as it’s part of my job to improve care for people with dementia, help set standards for services that the local authority and NHS do business with. I alternate between professional obligation to stay positive, and some faith in human nature; and pessimism about how underfunded it all is. The Alzheimers Society have a document called This Is Me, which one can fill in, maybe with help from loved ones, maybe at the earlier stages of the condition, to help hospital or care home staff understand.

        It’s a handy checklist, though it would be nice to have a few more interesting questions, favourite band / poem / book / recipe; what lessons has life taught you…?

      • Good idea, DP – perhaps work with the Alzheimers people to update it? I’m thinking of making a list, in case I ever get dementia, so my kids will know what to do. Number one: don’t argue with me. It’ll be a stretch for them, I know.

        (I do realise that care home staff are very poorly-paid and the fact that they’re also poorly-trained is not their fault. Staff turnover is, of course, high…)

      • TFD – I think they must discover all that as they go along. It’s a tough job, and surely one of the pleasures of it is hearing stories. I can’t imagine somebody would stay in this line of work for long (physically and emotionally demanding, low pay…) if they didn’t get some sort of satisfaction out of the human connection. I suppose it varies from case to case though?

  4. No idea how to do the playbook, but how about tributes to music itself: Purcell’s “Music for a While” and Schubert’s “An die Musik”.

  5. Claire — thanks for your story about my great Aunt Olga. My name is Mark Von Till, and I remember my Aunt very well. She lived in Highland Park on 2nd Street. My sister, Laura Von Till-Smith, took lessons for a while from Olga. Your recounting of my aunt is how I remember her, and the home in which she lived. Sam Carmell, her 2nd husband, had at one time, a nice career for himself with the fiddle: You can read more about him at the following link:

    http://www.myfamilybusiness.org/familytrees/bleicher/samuelcarmell.htm

    Once a brought an old violin from an attic that had a Stradivarius label on the inside to Sam thinking I had stumbled on a fortune. He promptly dismissed it for what it really was. I remember Sam most especially when he played at my grandfather, Louis Von Till’s funeral in 1987. Louis was Olga’s brother.

    Before she died, Olga gave me her first husband’s gold watch that I treasured for years; but was stolen from me. I will always remember her for that gesture. Olga and Sam are legends to me. They are from another generation that is gone forever; but their music and memories, style and grace will stand for eternity. My only regret is that I had not taken lessons from Olga or Sam. I was not so much interested in learning an instrument at the time. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I missed. Thanks again, and also thanks for posting the recipe which my wife and I will try soon.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! What a pleasant surprise! DId you live in Highland Park, too? Thanks for the link about Sam Carmell. I really didn’t know that much about him. Do you think that any of Ms Von Till’s letters or journals are still about? I think she would make a wonderful subject for a biography.

      Thank you so much. It was wonderful to hear from you.

      Claire

  6. Hopefully you will see this reply as this entry is a year old. I just found this site when I googled Olga Von Till who was my piano teacher in the 70′s. I lived in Highland Park at the time. I have recently been in touch with Steve Von Till who is Olga’s nephew and has been looking for people who remember her. I would love to hear some of the storied that Olga told you as I don’t remember many that she told me.

    • Hello! I wish I remembered more stories too. Everything is quite vague and blurry. I wish she’d left some letters of diaries. I wish she’d written an autobiography!

      Most of the stories I remember are about traveling…both as a teenager in Hungary and later with Sam. I wonder who would know more details?

      Thanks for taking the time to write.

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