Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fennel: A Delicious History Lesson

The best thing about joining our One Straw Farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) this year was that we were introduced to fruits and vegetables we probably never would have even glanced at in the supermarket. As someone who likes to know what I am eating as well as the best ways to enjoy it, I started doing a little digging on my new find - fennel.

A Brief History of Fennel
  • Fennel is an ancient plant from coastal regions around the Mediterranean. Roman warriors are said to have consumed fennel to make them strong.
  • In Greek mythology Prometheus, who brought fire to mankind, concealed it in a stalk of fennel. Fennel's Greek name is marathon, which means "grow thin," and reflects the belief it suppresses appetite. The town of Marathon, site of the famous battle between the Athenians and the Persians, means "place of fennel." After the battle, the Athenians used woven fennel stalks as a symbol of victory.
  • Charlemagne declared in 812 AD that fennel was essential in every garden because it had healing properties.
Tasting Notes for a Fennel Newbie:
Fennel has a slight anise or licorice flavor, and the crunchy texture of a fennel bulb makes an interesting combination in recipes. It was suggested to use fennel raw in salads and try roasting or braising it to serve as a side dish. Fennel can easily be substituted for celery, onion or bean sprouts, and is a welcomed addition in soups, casseroles and even lasagna.

Photograph via Instagram (copyright illegibleink)
The Winning Recipe: Onion & Fennel Soup Gratin
adapted from Ina Garten, How Easy Is That?
  • 4 Tbs (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 lbs onions, halved and sliced 1/4 inch thick (Ina recommends Spanish onions because they are sweeter and easier to slice; I used the onions I had received from the local CSA that week.)
  • 2 lbs fennel, tops and cores removed, sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 1/2 cup dry sherry
  • 1/2 cup Cognac or brandy
  • 1 1/2 cups dry white wine (Ina recommends a Sauvignon Blanc; I ended up using what was left in my husband/wine salesman's bag from the day before - Honig's Sauvignon Blanc. And since one should always taste what they are cooking with I had a glass while I waited.)
  • 8 cups beef broth (Of course, you could substitute vegetable broth but if you are not a vegetarian, go for it!)
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 Tbs kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 small sourdough or white French boule, crusts removed and sliced 1/2 in thick, toasted (I used a French bread loaf from Whole Foods Market.)
  • 4 to 6 oz. Gruyere cheese, grated (I substituted Swiss cheese here because I liked the mild flavor of the cheese with the beefy broth and hyped-up fennel and onions.)
  1. Heat butter and olive oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and fennel, and cook over medium heat 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions turn golden-brown.
  2. Add the sherry and Cognac, scraping up the browned bits in the pan, and simmer uncovered about 5 minutes.
  3. Add the white wine and simmer uncovered for 15 more minutes.
  4. Add the beef broth, bay leaves, salt, and pepper, and bring to a boil, then lower the heat, and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes. Remove the bay leaves. At this point you can also taste for seasoning.
  5. Preheat the broiler with a rack 5 inches below the broiler and ladle the soup into oven-safe serving bowls. Top with the toasted bread, sprinkle generously with grated cheese, and broil for 3 to 5 minutes, until the cheese is melted and bubbly. Serve hot!

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