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*
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
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.