Short Order: Finding the nerve to cook fennel

'Fennel is one of those vegetables that can baffle the uninitiated.'

fennel 88 (photo credit: )
fennel 88
(photo credit: )
My friend Angela, who visits here enthusiastically every year from Mönchengladbach, near the German-Dutch border, this time left a healthy gift behind: a taste for fennel, a vegetable I had never before had the slightest inclination, or maybe nerve, to try. I was not alone, it seems. "Fennel is one of those vegetables that can baffle the uninitiated," writes chef and food writer Micol Negrin in Fine Cooking. "What does it taste like? Which part do you eat? How do you cook it? These are all questions I've been asked in the supermarket, not only by other shoppers, but by produce managers as well." Not to be confused with anise, which has a very strong licorice flavor, fennel has only very delicate undertones of licorice. "Italians, who seem to adore it, enjoy fennel breaded and fried, sautéed with garlic, even raw with a drizzle of olive oil," says Negrin. "I love the classic salad of thinly sliced raw fennel, fruity olive oil and shaved Parmesan. "But more often I cook fennel to bring out its wonderful sweetness and tenderness. I'll roast it with garlic and tomatoes to toss with pasta, or braise it with stock until it's tender and then top it with Parmesan. Fennel is also delicious grilled or sautéed to keep some of its crunch." Angela taught us to either grate raw fennel, along with a small raw beet and some raw carrot, for a healthy vegetable starter to any meal (drizzle on your favorite dressing); or to simmer the fennel gently with garlic and serve it with potatoes cooked in their skins for a filling vegetarian main course. ANGELA'S FENNEL 1-2 medium fennel bulbs 1-2 garlic cloves, cut in half a little oil 1-2 tsp. additive-free vegetable stock powder, or 1 cube Rinse the fennel bulb under cold water and peel the stringy fibers off the outer layer with a potato peeler or sharp paring knife. If the outside is very fibrous or discolored, make a shallow horizontal slit along the base of the bulb and peel the layer away. Cut the fennel into bite-sized pieces and put them in a pot with the garlic, oil and stock, and three tablespoons of water. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, or until done. Variation: Add extra garlic, and some chopped tomato instead of the water. When the fennel is cooked, transfer it to a baking dish, top with bread crumbs and grated Parmesan and bake at 220° until the topping is crisp. A NEW cookbook called Vegan Express by Nava Atlas appeared on my desk recently. Here's an Asian-style salad dressing. SESAME-GINGER SALAD DRESSING 1⁄3 cup light oil 2 Tbsp. dark sesame oil 1⁄3 cup rice vinegar or white wine vinegar 1 Tbsp. maple syrup 1 Tbsp. reduced-sodium soy sauce 1 tsp. or more grated fresh ginger 1 Tbsp. sesame seeds Combine all the ingredients in a tightly lidded jar and shake well. Refrigerate any dressing that's left and bring to room temperature before using again. AMONG THE feedback I received on my last column about diet drinks was an e-mail from Carol Guilford in Los Angeles, who wrote about "the insidious artificial sweetener aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet). "When I was in Israel for a joyous wedding, I was appalled at the Diet Coke sitting outside stores in 105-degree [40°C] temperatures. The heat exacerbates the affects of the neurotoxin, and I saw people putting lime in it to kill the horrid taste." Closer to home, Michael Storch in Jerusalem tells this soft drink story: "Up to the 1960s, my father and brothers owned and operated a liquor store in New York. One day, one of them dropped a family-sized bottle of Coca-Cola, which smashed on the sidewalk just outside the store. In the time it took them to fetch a mop and broom, the Coke had stained the concrete. "Neither the rain of spring nor the summer sun, nor the wet leaves of fall, nor even the salt sprinkled on the ice in winter could take away that stain. Day in, day out, they're out there sweeping, and they're starin' at this stain, and it's starin' back at them. Year in, year out, and after awhile they're thinkin': 'If it can do that to concrete, what is it doing to me?' "And, one by one, they stopped drinking Coca-Cola. My father took to bitter lemon and tonic water." Michael himself confesses to a "later-life fondness for 'straight' lemon water. "I squeeze three lemons, fill two 1.5-liter soda bottles with water, and I'm done. It's refreshing, goes with just about anything and, because it is so dilute, does not need sugar. In fact, at that dilution, you can taste the sugar that the manufacturer includes in every lemon." [email protected]