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Potatoes and fennel, great fall duo

 Judith Dunbar-Hines' braised potatoes fennel. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Judith Dunbar-Hines' braised potatoes and fennel. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 20, 2012 6:03AM

Chicago’s earliest immigrants came from England, Germany and Ireland. It stands to reason then that Chicago became a meat and potatoes town. Potatoes — versatile, inexpensive and easy to grow — appeared on many early Chicago tables once a day, maybe more.

At our house, hash browns might be served at breakfast to use up any boiled potatoes from the previous night’s dinner. My mother’s German Potato Salad was a staple at the large mid-day meals she prepared for farm workers and creamy mashed potatoes often were made in abundance so that any leftovers could be made into fried potato cakes the next day.

My father supervised the large crop of potatoes in the garden and, following his belief in signs of the moon for guidance, he always planted on Good Friday for a late summer harvest. Our root cellar held many boxes of potatoes packed in straw and destined to be the mainstay of meals all winter long.

A recent trip through the farmers markets gave none-too-subtle hints of the waning days of market season. The abundance of potatoes in every shape, size and color has quite obviously increased these past two weeks. Iron Creek Farms offers eight different types, others might have as many as a dozen to choose from. My Old World mother and traditionalist father would be surprised to find so many different varieties easily available, and shocked with those deep purple potatoes.

Let the bounty peak your imagination and desire to go above and beyond the usual mashed or oven-baked fries.

Using some of the colorful “newcomers” in this week’s recipe makes for a nice contrast when combined with small fingerlings. When shopping for those aptly-named spuds, look for uniform sizes, about the size of your thumb. Scrub well and simply cut in half lengthwise.

The combination of saute (to brown the vegetables) and braise (to give them extra flavor while cooking in a small amount of liquid) is a common cooking method, but not often used for potatoes. Removing the cover for the last few minutes allows the liquids to thicken and form a lovely, flavorful glaze.

Adding a layer of fresh fennel, abundant at the markets now, gives an added interest and depth of flavor. Fennel is often passed over by cooks who are unsure how exactly to use it. To prepare it for this dish, slice the bulb end, chop some of the wispy fronds for a garnish, use the stalks for a soup base to be used later. The pronounced anise flavor becomes more subtle and even fennel-adverse diners become converts with one bite of this hearty casserole.

Judith Dunbar Hines is a cooking teacher, tour guide, writer and culinary consultant in Chicago.

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