Saturday, July 11, 2009

Learning to Love Fennel

I try not to discriminate. But no matter how hard I try, there is one food I don’t like. Actually, it’s a whole category of food: fennel and anything that tastes even vaguely like fennel. This obviously includes fennel, the vegetable, and fennel, the seed, and also tarragon, chervil, anise, star anise, licorice, and a whole range of alcoholic beverages. And I absolutely abhor root beer—I hate it so much that I can’t even stand when my husband drinks it.

I’m really traumatized—ashamed even—by my hang up with fennel. I mean, no self-respecting foodie should be in the position of having to avoid an entire category of food. Let’s just say that when you journey all the way across the country to dine at Chez Panisse, and the night’s menu features salad with raw fennel, it’s not embarrassing to cry in public. (That was like ten years ago, and I’m still scarred.)

Lest you think less of me, I want to point out in my own defense that I do love spicy Italian sausage (even though I sometimes pick out a few of the more obvious fennel seeds), I will devour a bowl of bouillabaisse in no time flat, I think of pho as comfort food, and I often sprinkle Chinese five-spice on duck breasts before I sear them. It takes lots of therapy, but I’m working really hard to overcome my fennel issues.

I’m proud to report that I’m making steady progress. Although raw fennel still makes me cringe, I’ve found that I like fennel when it’s cooked in ways that bring out its natural sweetness. I’ve even managed to create a fennel dish I absolutely love.

I hope you like it as much as I do. I think there’s hope yet for this fennel hater…

Unfortunately, in some perverse twist of karma, my puppy Alice (who just happens to be named after Alice Waters) just tore the only fennel that actually grew a bulb out of the garden and chewed it up to bits.

I’m sure I can’t be the only one out there with a funny food aversion. So I’m wondering, what’s your food hang up? And do you think it’s nature or nurture? Because neither of my parents can stand fennel either.

Braised Fennel with Shallots*
Printable Recipe

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and quartered
4 shallots, halved
2 tablespoons white wine
½ cup chicken broth
2 sprigs thyme
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Heat a medium, heavy sauté pan over medium-high heat until very hot but not smoking. Add the oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the fennel and shallots and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, tossing about 2 times, until crusty and brown in spots.* Add the wine, broth, and thyme. Cover the pan, transfer to the oven, and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until tender. Discard the thyme sprig and return the pan to medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and simmer for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the broth is thickened and saucy. Drizzle with the lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a platter and serve immediately.

Serves 4 as a side dish. Chop and toss with pasta and grated Parmegiano-Reggiano for a main course. Blend with more chicken broth for a soup.

*Searing the fennel and shallots in this manner adds tons of flavor to the finished dish. For a related Pork Tenderloin with Braised Fennel Sauce recipe and everything you ever wanted to know about searing, plus dozens of fabulous searing recipes, look for my book Seared to Perfection in stores in the fall of 2010.


(wife.) said...

Great post. Sounds exactly like me with cilantro/coriander, right down to the embarrassment about hating it and trying my damnedest to like it. I've gotten better about coriander seeds, and I can eat cilantro hidden in Mexican or Indian food, but fresh cilantro-leaf garnish still makes me shudder. I know there's some kind of enzyme thing that makes people love or hate it, but that still doesn't help the frustration at having ONE THING I hate so much!

Delaney said...

Brussel Sprouts. Cannot stand the smell of them let alone the taste though I like cabbage raw in salads or shredded in oriental dishes.

Oh, and beets. ugh!

Anonymous said...

Sister, I'm right with you on fennel. And anise. And licorice. Don't even get me started about absinthe. ICKY! It's all just.. icky.

And my hubby loves it. I make him brush his teeth before kissing me.

Big Boys Oven said...

this is just lovely, the smell of liqource just excites me, just drive me mad to hunger! ;)

Suzy said...

Fennel might be my favorite veggie ever! I love Jagermeister, too, but I'm guessing you don't. The category of food I absolutely cannot stand is bizarre: fruit. Seriously. It's so tart and squishy and gross! I otherwise eat like a health nut/hippie: lots of whole grains, fish, tofu, and veggies. I like almost every vegetable, so hopefully eating lots of them balances out a lack of fruit. I like to think so.

Foodiewife said...

What a great, thought-provoking post! I'm not wild about fennel (reminds me of a bad hangover from Greek Ouzo decades ago...). However, I did make Ina Garten's Fennel Gratin, which was pretty palatable. Still, I struggle to like this. Your recipe gives me hope. Who doesn't love shallots?
My food aversions are few, but I cannot bond with yellow curry. Way too overpowering. This is totally un-American, but I hate watermelon! Hate it! I take one bite, and I can't change my dislike to the taste of "unripe" something. Don't even get me started on eating liver. I would hold my breath until I turn blue, before taking one single bite!

We Are Never Full said...

oh, poor poor woman! i actually feel for you and your fear of fennel. mainly because it is one of my absolutely favorite things to add to dishes. i can't imagine life w/o it. but i think it's awesome that you have been willing to keep testing yourself w/ it. one thing that i feel VERY strongly about w/ food is that you keep trying things you may not like. taste buds change and sometimes you find ways of cooking things that changes the flavor (as you did!) of the thing you may not like. it's part of loving food - keep on trying!

Anonymous said...

Well, I actually LOVE fennel and eat it many ways - freshly sliced in a salad or slaw, roasted, sauteed with leeks, sauteed and snuck into a grain dish, tucked into a stew ... anything and everything! I actually started salivating when I saw the photo of this recipe. I guess, then, you succeeded with at least one reader! I will definitely make this asap.

Personally, I hate, hate, hate cilantro, but occasionally I'll tolerate a good guacamole with the stuff. I used to hate walnuts, but now I love them, so I guess one just has to wait until one's tastes change, as We Are Never Full said.

Unknown said...

I actually googled "how can i prepare fennel in a way i will learn to love it!"......that's how i found yr recipe/post. It looks very promising and am excited to make it for my sister Kate...(she hates fennel hands down!). Looking for a way to introduce myself to fennel AND change her mind about it. I have to agree with other posters....i really don't much care for cilantro. I keep trying.....but it always taste soapy to me. Thanks for yr honesty and yr recipe.

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