Cookbook author Deborah Madison tells me fennel is in the carrot family. Its nicknames include bulb fennel, Florence fennel, and finocchio. Formally, it's Foeniculum vulgare var. Azoricum.
Fennel, apparently, is one of the more efficient vegetables. You can eat the bulb, the stalks and the feathery fronds that remind me of dill, except they taste better.
Still, who could guess that the hollow stalks of fennel, the smaller ones, can be used as straws. I don't know why I would know that, but I'm glad to learn this trivia from someone who much more intimately understands and knows her vegetables. I guess that's why I bought Vegetable Literacy, though the gorgeous book cover was also hard to ignore.
The subtitle for this book is: Cooking and Gardening With 12 Families From the Edible Plant Kingdom, With Over 300 Deliciously Simple Recipes. Parts of it feel like a textbook, which I can appreciate after saying goodbye to biology classes a long time ago. Understanding what families these vegetables come from should teach me how to use them together and encourage improvisation.
The recipe for braised fennel wedges jumped out at me immediately. I made just some slight changes by using fresh thyme and a bit more garlic. Use more onion if you feel like it.
I thought the onions would fry too quickly, but I kept stirring and everything did actually start to steam while the saffron stained the onions a deep yellow. I needed a wider pan to properly char the wedges, so I'd likely use the biggest thing we have next time, the Dutch oven.
If you also find yourself with too little cooking space, reserve some of the onions to make way for the fennel wedges in the pan. You could also brown some of the wedges separately in another pan. After the fennel wedges get some color, try to keep them above water as they simmer in the sauce to show off the char you worked for.
A braise coaxes out the fennel's sweetness, making it mellow, tender and golden. Madison says fennel is a natural with seafood and this dish was absolutely wonderful with Danny's pan-seared scallops. They seemed to enhance each other, the fennel bringing out the sweetness in the wild sea scallops.
Fennel, you've grown on me. This girl who avoided anything anise-flavored, even the marzipan-filled chocolates of Vienna during her big trip to Europe. Ten years later, I keep a jar of fennel seeds on the top shelf of my spices and I keep buying these bulbs that fan out into electric green fronds. I'll keep this recipe, too.
Ileana Morales is a writer who cooks in a small apartment kitchen in Tampa with boyfriend Danny Valentine, an education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. For more of their kitchen adventures, visit Ileana's blog, alittlesaffron.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.