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Falling for fennel

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Falling for fennel, to me, is a love story about as unlikely as one could be.

At a glance, the pale, shapely bulb with leggy stalks entices some shoppers to come hither. But then its label — “anise” — stops others of us in our tracks.

Anise is the essence of licorice, a flavor I can’t abide. Black licorice ropes, Black Jack gum, even Licorice Spice tea makes me gag. In Scandinavian cookies, pastries and breads, aniseeds are only slightly less offensive on my palate.

Then I realized my acquaintance with anise — as labeled in grocers’ produce sections — was a case of mistaken identity. How do retailers confuse the herb anise with the vegetable fennel?

The two do share seed-like fruits similar in appearance and flavor. Sweet, pungent aniseeds are most often distilled into licorice-flavored foods and, chiefly, such liqueurs as absinthe, anisette and sambuca. Milder fennel seeds factor more often into savory recipes, such as Italian sausage.

Feathery leaves crown both the annual herb anise and the perennial fennel. Both produce the aromatic compound anethole, the source of that distinctive taste.

From a culinary perspective, however, anise and fennel are far from interchangeable. While anise’s roots are spindly, fennel’s nether regions develop into the voluptuous vegetable I’ve adored for more than 15 years. And I’ve since come around to incorporating fennel seeds into recipes from India and the Middle East, where they are an important seasoning.

But it was French vegetable soup that sparked my fennel infatuation. After augmenting classical cuisine’s mirepoix with fennel, I came to consider it a bridge between onion and celery. So feel free to add fennel to any dish — soups, stews, pasta, quiche, risotto — calling for onion and celery. Subtler than both, fennel’s texture also is more refined.

Refreshingly crunchy, raw fennel bulb is neither fibrous nor watery, recommending it for creamy potato, chicken or egg salads. Garnish any fennel recipe with the vegetable’s vibrant green fronds, but save the tougher stalks for simmering in a batch of homemade stock.

Finely shred fennel bulb to lighten winter salads or slaws comprising hearty greens and brassicas. Cut narrow wedges of fennel to elevate standard crudite. Or choose thin slices as a vehicle, instead of crackers or bread, for fine cheese drizzled with olive oil, as the Italians do.

Coaxing fennel into silky submission takes only gentle heat, a bit of time and dollop of fat. This method is my favorite: Quarter the bulbs and, over medium beat, caramelize them on all sides in a pool of butter, olive oil, bacon fat or drippings. Reduce the heat to low, pour in some wine or sherry to deglaze the pan, stir, add about a half-cup stock or broth, then cover the pan and allow the fennel to braise for about 10 minutes. Remove the pan’s lid, increase the heat and allow the pan sauce to reduce and thicken slightly. Arrange the fennel around a plate of cooked Puy lentils or soft polenta, preferably with some sautéed wild mushrooms, and top the whole thing with a poached egg.

Such warming, comfort foods coincide with fennel’s peak season — late winter through early spring. Locally, farmers plant fennel in the fall to prevent bolting. Because it can withstand frost, fennel overwinters and can last through late spring farmers markets.

Try fennel in these recipes.

Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS In Roasted Fennel Elixer, chicken and vegetables are first roasted, then used to make a broth. The elements come together at the end for a deeply flavored soup.
Roasted Fennel Elixir

2 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, about 5

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed

1 fennel bulb, trimmed, quartered and sliced 1/4 inch thick, fronds finely chopped

2 lemons, halved lengthwise and sliced 1/4 inch thick

1 onion, peeled, quartered and sliced 1/2 inch thick

1 small hot pepper, such as serrano, halved, seeded and thinly sliced

4 garlic cloves, whole, skin-on

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 star anise (optional)

4 ounces udon noodles

Rub the chicken with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Settle chicken, skin-side up, on a large baking sheet. Set aside 1/2 cup finely chopped fennel fronds. Heap all remaining ingredients (except noodles) onto pan, and toss with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.

Roast at 425 degrees, stirring vegetables occasionally, until they are beautifully caramelized, for about 35 minutes.

Pull pan out of oven. Avoiding garlic and star anise, portion half of vegetables into 4 large soup bowls. Scrape remaining vegetables and 2 chicken thighs into a large saucepan. Return sheet pan to oven and let remaining chicken crisp, for about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, pour water into saucepan to cover chicken by 1 inch. Stir to break up chicken. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 25 minutes.

Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Stir in the noodles; cook until tender but firm. Drain. Rinse under cool water to stop cooking. Portion a nest of noodles into each soup bowl.

When roast chicken is beautifully crisp, pull it out of oven. Remove and discard bones. Slice meat into 1-inch-wide strips. Portion strips, skin-side up, into soup bowls.

Strain broth; discard solids. Reheat and add salt, if needed. Ladle hot broth into each bowl. Garnish with fennel fronds. Serve steaming hot.

Makes 4 servings.

Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/TNS Fennel Salad with Marinated Feta
Orange, Fennel and Olive Salad with Marinated Feta

2 cups sliced fennel (halved lengthwise, cored and thinly sliced lengthwise with a sharp knife)

3/4 cup chopped feathery fennel fronds

1-3/4 cups pitted whole Italian oiled-cured black olives (substitute Kalamata if desired)

8 navel oranges, divided

6 blood oranges or ruby red grapefruit

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon honey

1/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

In a large mixing bowl, place the sliced fennel, chopped fronds and olives.

Place one of the navel oranges on a cutting board; slice off both ends, then using a sharp knife, cut peel from flesh of fruit following contours, removing pith or white part with skin. Using a paring knife, segment orange by removing flesh from membrane. Place in mixing bowl; repeat process with 6 more navels and all the blood oranges or grapefruit.

Juice 1 navel orange. In a small bowl, whisk orange juice with the olive oil, vinegar, honey, salt and pepper. Drizzle dressing over salad, tossing gently to combine. Salad can be made in advance and tossed before serving. Serve at room temperature or chilled with marinated feta alongside.

Makes 8 to 12 servings.

MARINATED FETA: Cube 1 pound of feta cheese into 1/2-inch squares; place in a mixing bowl. Pour 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil over feta. Add 1/4 cup roughly chopped or torn, fresh basil. Season with 1/2 teaspoon black pepper; gently toss and set aside.

E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS Fennel and saffron add a beautiful fragrance to a bowl of steamed clams.
Happy Clams

1 fennel bulb with fronds

4 garlic cloves, peeled and divided

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, peeled and sliced into crescents

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

2 tablespoons tomato paste

3 tablespoons steeped saffron (method follows)

12 ounces waxy potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, cut into 1-inch chunks

1-1/2 to 2 cups chicken broth

1/3 cup dry white wine

20 small clams, scrubbed

1/2 cup heavy cream

Snip frilly fronds from the fennel. Chop fronds with 1 of the garlic cloves, the lemon zest and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Cover this fennel gremolata; set aside. Slice fennel bulb into crescents. Chop remaining cloves of garlic.

In a medium skillet, heat the oil over medium. Slide in sliced fennel and the onions, chopped garlic, remaining salt and the red pepper. Cook, stirring, until vegetables wilt, for about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and steeped saffron. Stir in the potatoes.

Pour in enough of the broth to barely cover potatoes, about 1 1/2 cups. Bring broth to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover pan and cook until potatoes are easy to pierce with a skewer, for about 10 minutes.

Pour in the wine. Nestle in the clams. Cover pan and steam until clams open, for 5 to 7 minutes. Discard any unopened clams.

Stir in the cream. Cover pan and let rest over low heat, for 2 minutes. Scoop into bowls. Dust with gremolata. Enjoy.

Makes 2 servings.

STEEPED SAFFRON: Slide saffron threads (at least a tablespoon — better yet, more) into a mortar (or clean spice grinder). Crush to a fine powder. Seal this precious powder in a jar and store in a cool, dark cupboard. When ready to use, measure 1/4 teaspoon saffron powder into a small jar. Pour in 3 tablespoons boiling water. Let steep for 30 minutes. Store any unused elixir, tightly sealed, in the refrigerator. It’s the key to brilliant saffron cuisine.

Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNSPenne with Roasted Fennel and Onions
Penne With Roasted Fennel and Onions

2 fennel bulbs, tall stalks and leaves discarded, bulb cut in half lengthwise and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices

2 medium yellow onions, peeled, cut in half and sliced 1/4-inch thick

1 large garlic clove, pressed or peeled and finely minced

1/2 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more to taste

1/2 pound dry penne

2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Combine the fennel, onion, garlic and oil in large roasting pan. Season with the salt to taste; toss mixture to coat fennel and onion with oil. Spread mixture in an even layer in pan. Roast on topmost rack in preheated oven, stirring occasionally, until fennel and onions are just beginning to brown, for 20 to 25 minutes. Be careful not to overcook; fennel and onion will quickly go from brown to burned.

While vegetables are roasting, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the tablespoon of salt and the penne. Cook, stirring occasionally, until pasta is tender but firm, al dente, for 7 to 10 minutes. Drain. Transfer to a large, preheated serving bowl. Add roasted vegetables and the parsley; toss well. Serve with the grated Parmesan.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe from “Pasta Verde,” by Judith Barrett.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.