Feast of fennel

A detractor of licorice and all things flavored as such, I long dismissed fennel as an ingredient in my kitchen.

I knew the dried seeds were a common seasoning in Italian sausage but didn’t see any necessity for them in my spice cabinet. Fresh fennel seemed even more obscure until I saw it listed as an ingredient in a recipe for French vegetable soup.

Weary of mirepoix, I thought fennel — if combined with some other less-used vegetables — might make a lamb and wild rice soup worthwhile. I still included the cook’s trinity of carrots, celery and onions but also added turnips, parsnips and fennel root, liberally garnishing the finished soup with parsley and chopped fennel fronds.

Licoricey, it was not. Cooking softens fennel’s flavor, making a nice accent to other, richer ingredients.

Since that experiment, I look at the fennel bulb almost like an onion. Chop it up and start it sweating in a pan a little ahead of some diced onion. (The fennel is tougher and releases less water). That forms the base for a fabulous seafood or sausage risotto, which then can be garnished with the beautiful green fennel fronds.

Most recently, I seared halves of fennel bulb with a saddle of rabbit in some butter and olive oil. Deglazing the pan with a little sherry and turkey stock, I braised the whole thing for about 45 minutes, covered, in a 350-degree oven. The innermost layers of fennel bulb came out so soft and smooth, they almost melted on the tongue.    

Over the past year, I kept seeing more and more recipes for fennel. But while it’s readily available in grocery stores, its cultivation remained somewhat a mystery. I tried to grow a single fennel plant this year in the garden, but wasn’t sure when the bulb would be big enough to harvest. Then the next thing I knew, it withered away.

Early summer brought some fresh fennel to the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market, but it was gone almost as soon as it arrived. Bolting is a major problem, explained the grower.

Then, when I least expected it, fennel popped up again at the market a couple weeks ago. Fry Family Farm, which can be counted on for the most abundant produce and widest variety, was peddling the plant. Not to be skunked again, I went on the Frys’ Web site and saw that they grow fennel in fall and sell it through the close of market season. That’s because it takes a frost and won’t bolt in cooler weather, Suzi Fry explained.

Aha! Now seemed the time for a flood of fennel recipes. If you miss the last growers market sessions next week, not to worry. Fennel should be available in grocery stores all year and, according to another recipe published last year in A la Carte, would jazz up Thanksgiving stuffing.


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