Fennel, at least in part, in on the menu today. The first time I came across a recipe listing a “fennel bulb” as one of the ingredients I was completely clueless. Not wanting to appear stupid, but apparently living up to the description in spite of that fact, I scoured the vegetable section looking for something which had I tripped over a barrel of, I would not have recognized. This, as you can imagine, made the search a wee teeny bit more frustrating. Finally, after nearly celebrating another birthday trying to locate the elusive bulb, I asked an employee stocking the shelves who directed me to a group of odd looking bulbs with one green bushy end sprouting something looking quite like dill. Fennel, who knew? As indicated in my recipe book, I bought two. Once home, I placed them on my cutting board. After circling for a period of time the realization set in that now I had located the pungent produce I didn’t seem to know what to do with it.
Not sure whether you ate the greens or discarded them, or how to approach chopping the bulb, I headed for the Internet. What a new world the Internet has opened up when it comes to research. As yet, I truly haven’t found a topic I’ve queried where I wasn’t rewarded with some sort of answer in return. It’s magical. Sure enough, after a brief search I was pleased to note I was not the only fennel challenged cook on the planet. Videos were available aplenty for me to choose from. Yea.
Locating the video I wanted, I set my laptop on the counter. After returning volleys with my other half who, fully aware of my track record when it comes to spilling, cautioned me not to do so to our new toy before we had made the first payment Managing to avoid such a disaster, I dissected my first fennel bulb with help from the chef on the screen. Drunk with power at my accomplishment, I wondered what to conquer next? Perhaps I would swim in the unknown waters of the unfathomable jicama or explore the spiky depths of the kiwano melon? The possibilities seemed endless.
Fennel, often compared to anise due to its similar licorice flavor, for me was an acquired taste as were many foods. I didn’t barrel screaming into this world with a palate willing to accept every new taste as delicious. Most children do not. However, over the years through trial and error many things have moved from the ” Eeuuw” side of my list to the “Mmmm” because my palate matured or evolved as I went along. At one time the mere word avocado made me gag and now it is among my favorite foods, and mushrooms in my meal at the age of twelve would have had me running screaming from the room.
My children were introduced, as was I, to all kinds of interesting and new flavors during their formative years. It was never my rule they be forced to eat them, but it was my rule that they at least give them a try. As a result, both my children as do I, eat most anything prepared well that arrives on our plates, a trait which has its obvious upside and downside. Each generation approaches feeding their offspring differently I would suppose. I have one grandchild who only ate hot dogs and peas for a year. I don’t notice any apparent side effects in the child, other than she is a typical pre-teen with all the drama and hormonal imbalance those two words put together conjure up.
Hailing from Nova Scotia where seafood is as common as sweat in a malaria ward, moving to Southern California when I was nine not only was a complete turnabout climate-wise for me, but also culturally. Mexican food was non-existent in restaurants in Halifax at the time. Tortillas were a mystery to me and highly seasoned dishes the rarity not the norm. On thinking back, I don’t believe I had ever encountered an egg roll or chow mein before I crossed the California border either. Consequently, all the new flavors and tastes took a bit of getting used to on my part, but being a well-rounded billboard for what a good eater should embody (ach, my puns) I threw myself into my new environment with great enthusiasm. Mexican food to this day remains at the top of my list for making my taste buds happy.
As the new year begins afresh it brings my thoughts to how easily we drift into routines, especially as the years fall behind us. Recipes that are old favorites seem comforting and we color less outside of the lines in our cooking, at least many do. It is fun to sample something new, even if it turns out not to be to your liking. As I used to say to my children “you certainly won’t know what it tastes like if it never enters your mouth”.
On that note I have decided to explore from time to time something new and fresh and pass it one to you and see what you think. This will be my one for this month. If you try it you must let me know what you think. The aromas released in the kitchen from the lovely blend of spices is well worth the effort and I’ve included Susie’s guide to preparing the fennel for your viewing pleasure.
Preparing the fennel:
Choose a good looking bulb (we live in a small town and this was the only one so not pristine as I would like) with no brown leaves and crisp foliage. In this case I sliced off the brown portions of the leaves before chopping to make do.
Cut the bulb off and save the foliage to use in soups or sauces.
Cut diagonally on the sides of the bulb to cut any excess sprouts off.
Cut a slice off the bottom of the bulb and discard.
Slice in half lengthwise and you are ready to chop.
Your certificate will be mailed to you.
Three Martini Penne Pasta in a Vodka Fennel Sauce with Olive Tepanade
1 lb. penne rigate pasta
2 Tbsp. EVOO
4 slices bacon, chopped
2 cooked Hot Italian sausages, sliced and halved
1 bulb fennel, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. fennel seeds
Salt and pepper
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1 28 oz. can Italian plum tomatoes
1 10 1/2 oz. Italian stewed tomatoes
1/2 cup dry vermouth
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
1/2 tsp. dried basil
Parmigiano-reggiano cheese, shredded
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of pasta liquid.
Meanwhile heat EV olive oil in pan. Add chopped bacon and cook until crisp.
Add fennel, onion, bay leaves, garlic, crushed pepper, and fennel seeds to pan. Season with salt and pepper. Cover partially and cook until onions and fennel are softened 8-10 mins.
Stir in tomato paste. Add tomato sauce and canned tomatoes with juice to pan. Add sliced sausages, vermouth, basil and Italian seasoning. Allow to simmer for 15-20 mins.
Add the pasta and reserved 1/2 cup pasta water to sauce. Mix well. Serve with grated cheese and tapenade.
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 cups whole, pitted kalamata olives
1 Tbsp. capers
1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
3 Tbsp. lemon juice
4 Tbsp. olive oil
Pulse all ingredients in food processor until finely chopped. Refrigerate for 1 hr. to let flavors set. Serve on top of pasta. Yum