Why did fennel make one’s heart go pitter pat? Fennel salad, roasted fennel, fennel seed, fennel flowers, a celebration of all the reasons we love fennel.
The very ancient and now extinct, giant fennel plant known
as silphium became associated with lovemaking because it was thought to be a
powerful birth control agent. And
guess what the seedpod of the silphium plant was a dead ringer for? It looked
like the stylized version of the heart that we’ve all come to know: the rounded
orbs at the top descending into the pointy bottom. How wonderfully ironic: the
sanitized symbol of a heart is derived from the need for birth control. Hanky-panky and fennel, who knew??
I love random bits of culinary trivia like this, and I have
the author, Robin Maxwell, to thank for clueing me in to the fennel connection.
Her new book, O Juliet, is being released this February and her blog and love
games contest are a fun diversion from the relentless bad news that seems to
surround us. It is actually OK to take a break and think about something
romantic for a change.
It’s a pity that this giant fennel plant is now extinct;
although I’m pretty sure I’ve seen relatives of it in Italy. But there is plenty of fresh fennel in
the markets right now so at least we have that to comfort us although I would
caution against relying on it for birth control. If a guy whispers in your ear, “Hey Baby, come on let’s have
some fennel and we can party all night.” Girl, you know he’s talking nonsense.
I recently found fennel in a supermarket under the sign for
anise, so be warned. Just for the record, they are not the same plant, although
they both belong to the Apiaceae family
of plants. With the fennel plant you can eat: the pollen, the seeds, or the
fresh bulb. With anise you just eat the seeds.
Wild fennel pollen or “finnochio selvatico fiore” is a
staple in every Umbrian household. I use it on roast meats like pork and fowl:
a liberal sprinkling of this magic dust, a bit of salt, and you get the most
delicious, crispy skin on a roast chicken. If I’m making roast pork, I’ll coat
it with the fennel pollen on the surface and then right before serving, pour a
bit of pomegranate molasses on the meat. There is something about fennel and
pomegranate that is a match made in heaven.
Fennel seed can be used just like you would anise seed: in
sweet and savory preparations. I love the Indian custom of serving a little
bowl of after-dinner dried roasted fennel seeds that you chew to freshen up your
mouth and aid digestion after a spicy meal.
A fresh fennel slaw is a refreshing palate cleanser. It’s
the perfect side dish when you have some thing rich and unctuous because it’s a
clean, crunchy flavor counterpoint.
1 bulb of fennel
10-15 black pitted olives, roughly chopped, use more or less
according to taste
Olive oil, pinch of salt, red wine vinegar if needed
Very thinly slice the fennel into a bowl. Working over the
bowl so all the juices will run onto the sliced fennel, peel the orange, using
a knife so that there is no white or pith left on the orange, discard the peel,
then slice out the individual orange segments, roughly chop and mix with the
sliced fennel. By the way, you have just ‘supremed’ that orange. Squeeze the
left over core of the orange to extract all the juice. Add 1-2 T of olive oil,
toss and check for acidity. Sometimes just the orange juice is enough and
sometimes you need a bit more acid so you can add a little red wine vinegar.
Toss in the olives right before serving, they will stain the fennel and if you
put them in too soon the fennel gets all black pocked marked and diseased
looking. Yes, I’ve done it and that’s why I don’t do it anymore.
And if you like your fennel hot: roasted fennel is a tasty side dish, you can even serve it
in place of roast potatoes if you like.
1 fennel bulb
Grated parmigiana cheese
Butter or Olive Oil
up into large, lengthwise chunks and par boil for about 7-10 minutes until just
a little soft, but not mushy.
Drain and lay the chunks in a single layer in an ovenproof dish. Dot the
fennel with little chunks of butter or a drizzle of olive oil and then sprinkle
liberally with grated parmigiana cheese. Roast in the oven (350F/180C) until
the cheese turns bubbly and brown. For extra oomph and if there are no vegetarians
coming for dinner, drape slices of prosciutto over the fennel before you add
If you are into distilling your own absinthe, and who
wouldn’t love to do that, fennel is one of the original botanicals used when
making absinthe. One of these days, I’m going to get a still, retire into the
hills of Umbria and start making moonshine.
plant? Here’s a list of the reported benefits of eating the fresh fennel bulb:
lots of fiber, high in vitamin C, and a source of potassium. Fennel also
contains “Anethole”, an essential oil that gives fennel its flavor and is being
studied as a cancer preventative, and liver protector.
and you wonder what you would do with it, now you know! And if all this talk of fennel has put you in the mood for love, don't blame me, blame Robin.