Fennel: The Last Frontier Make Friends With Exotica - On the Produce Counter
By Deborah Salomon
Vegetables, like fashions, come and go.
Back in the 1980s, Southerners mistook -zucchini for rogue cucumbers. Yukon Gold meant jewelry from Canada's far north, not the main ingredient in potato salad, and romaine was something Alitalia served to first-class -passengers. A few - mesclun, broccoflower, -portabellas - remain the darlings of haute -cuisine while others quickly flame out.
Fennel defies classification.
"It's like a creature from 'Star Wars'; Southerners are not all that familiar, but once exposed they like it," says Sheri Castle, the Chapel Hill author of "The New Southern Garden Cookbook."
Ordinary raw fennel has a strong anise/licorice tang minus the sugar of black jelly beans. The common denominator is the phytonutrient anethole.
Finocchio, the Florentine fennel available locally with cream-colored bulb, splayed green stalks and feathery fronds, is mild and sweet.
"But cooked, it's completely different from raw," says Curtis Shelvey, chef-owner of Curt's Cucina, an Italian ristorante in Southern Pines.
Then, the flavor suggests celery with bok choy overtones. Fortunately, a little goes a long way, since the stalks sell at supermarkets for $4 to $5 per pound. Nevertheless, the Fresh Market moves 20 to 25 baby California-grown stalks a week, mostly to restaurants, says manager John Craven.
"Our customers know what it is," he says.
Harris Teeter usually stocks a variety with a larger bulb.
"Fennel is a shoulder crop I grow in the spring and fall," says Robert VanderVoort, a vendor at the Southern Pines Farmers Market. "I love it in a salad with citrus and red onion."
Fennel is also grown seasonally at Fox Squirrel Farm in Eagle Springs.
Like many contemporary favorites, fennel traveled the Mediterranean route. The ancient Greeks revered this wild herb-vegetable because, according to -mythology, the gods delivered knowledge to man in a fennel stalk filled with coal.
Fennel grows wild in much of Europe; its medicinal properties were well-documented by medieval scribes - especially the bold-flavored seeds, which still define Italian sausage.
A recipe survives from a Roman soldier, circa 60 A.D., which combines fennel seeds with sesame and cumin, perhaps as a rub or preservative to mask the off flavors of unrefrigerated meat.
Outside Italian enclaves, fennel remained a curiosity until chef/restaurateur/author/ -natural foods diva Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley reintroduced the vegetable to California -cuisine.
Waters famously taught Julia Child to make a shaved fennel, mushroom and Parmesan salad on an episode of Child's TV series.
That combo may be a bit much for novices.
"It's all in the presentation," Selvey says. "Fennel can be overpowering unless cohesive with (other ingredients in) the dish."
He suggests shaving the bulb paper-thin and marinating the shavings in lemon juice and olive oil, kosher salt and pepper.
"The acid breaks it down," he says.
For another raw preparation, Sheri Castle recommends a slaw, with apples, or thin slices with fresh orange sections and olive oil. Simple roasting brings out the mellow flavor. Slice bulb into quarters or eighths, leaving a bit of the base to hold everything together, drizzle with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a tablespoon of water, roast at 400 degrees until brown and caramelized.
Roasted fennel, at room temperature, topped with feta or bleu cheese crumbles, makes a nice appetizer. Add a few parchment-thin slices of spicy ham or Genoa salami for a lunch entree. Or, braise fennel in a combination of chicken stock and white wine until -fennel is tender and liquid evaporated. Sprinkle with seasoned bread crumbs, grated Parmesan and run under broiler. Serve topped with the feathery fronds, left raw.
Squash, beans, okra, corn - all wonderful, all -familiar. Fall is coming and with it, locally grown -fennel. Be ready for an adventure.
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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