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I would love to be European but I am not. I would love to state that my profoundly sensuous love for food comes from the Italian side of my family and that the rational side, which has led me to experiment and sample an endless array of comestibles, is distinctly French, but this is also not true. Maybe in a past life, yes, and perhaps in the future too I will be European. But I know that I am not because I don’t understand fennel.

Fennel is a vegetable that tastes strongly of anise. I associate this flavour with candies or with strong alcoholic drinks, such as Pernod before dinner or Sambuca after; but at my table there is no place for licorice between the cocktail and the post-prandial.

Of course, this is not true for many people and a specific vegetable has been provided for them. It is called fennel and it has been around a long time. Prometheus is said to have used fennel’s hollow stalks to hide the fire which he stole from the gods. During the middle ages the plant was hung over doors to keep out witches.

Fennel is a member of the carrot family. It has three main parts: feathery leaves, large stalks, and a thick bulbous centre. Although the plant can be quite bitter and similar to celery, the varieties we see at market are sweeter and strongly licorice flavoured.

The stalks can be dried and put on a fire to lend a subtle aroma to grilled meat and fish. The bulbs, quartered or halved are also often served grilled—brushed with a little oil and cooked quickly. Or else they can be braised in a little liquid, cooked for a few minutes and dusted with a mixture of Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs and cooked for another 10 minutes in a hot oven. Tender young stalks are often cut like celery and served raw in salads and the leaves are used as a garnish or tossed into soups just before serving. Still, no matter how I try to kill it, the flavour remains.

This is not subtle food. It is indomitable and takes over any dish in which it is served. I do like fennel in Indian dishes however; so perhaps there is a yet to be discovered Indian food gene which has worked its way through my family and resides in my culinary soul.

Indian dishes frequently use fennel seeds. I find these have a more delicate flavour than the stalks or bulbs. The seeds are often roasted and added to other spices. They are also munched at the end of a meal to help digestion and freshen the breath.

© Barry Lazar 2000 Email Flavourguy

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