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
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.