Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Aniseed...must mean fennel

When I was a kid fennel grew wild along the railway tracks, we all knew the smell but we'd never think of eating it. Indeed I'm not sure that it was an edible variety. Then later I became used to the smell and the taste of fennel seeds in Indian cooking. The next stage in my culinary education was bulb fennel. I'd see the bulbs in the vegetable market but never buy them as I was unsure what I'd do with them.
Fennel is widely grown and widely available. I remember on my first trip to a little town south of Rome seeing a paddock with a crop with a feathery dark green leaf. At a distance I thought it was carrots. Asking my host I was told that it was finocchio. His English and my Italian weren't a match for solving the problem of exactly what finocchio was, however lunch a few days later provided the solution! Bulb fennel is sometimes called Florence fennel.
I suspect that many people find fennel interesting but they don't make it part of their diet through a lack of knowing how they will deal with it. It's easy really with lots of simple ways. It makes a great salad as long as you get a very young tender bulb, slice it thinly - paper thin - and put it into a salad with some citrus segments and a simple citrus and oil based dressing.
The most foolproof way of cooking it though is to braise it. Take a large fennel bulb and split it vertically down the middle - from head to root. When you do this you will see a wedge shaped piece of root in the base of each half. Remove this piece with a sharp paring knife and then lay the half on the board flat side down and slice the fennel thinly, starting at the root end. The slices should be 3-4mm thick and you should stop slicing when you start to get to the leaves which are darker green and have white pith in the stems. Do the same with both halves.
Heat a non-stick frying pan with some good olive oil - 100 to 150ml of oil, add the fennel and fry on a high heat moving it constantly. What you are doing is looking for the slightest browning on some of the fennel. When it reaches that point add a little water, reduce the heat and cover with a tight fitting lid. The fennel should now cook very slowly and not brown further at all. Add more water if required. After about 30 minutes the fennel will be translucent and much reduced in bulk, all the water will have cooked off. Check the seasoning, you will almost certainly need some salt and probably pepper, depending on taste.
Serve the fennel in a small bowl. It adds a flavour punch to the meal, a distinctive aniseed type flavour which is enhanced by the slow braising in olive oil. This dish is simple and just requires a little time. It tames the biggest fennel bulb!

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