Thursday, March 14, 2013

Foeniculi, foenicula...or is it funiculi, funicula?

Do you remember that song, "Funiculi, Funicula"? I remember it from my childhood and I vaguely recall my mother singing it. It had happy lyrics with a sing-songy melody. I thought the tune was about fennel, but research reveals it's actually about an Italian cable car. What does this have to do with fennel? Apparently nothing. Except that the Latin for fennel is foeniculum vulgare, which sounds similar. Confused? Never mind.

Actually, fennel is a plant species in the genus Foeniculum. It is a hardy perennial herb with yellow flowers and feathery leaves, indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean. But it has become widely naturalized in many parts of the world, especially on dry soils near the sea coast and on riverbanks. Fennel is a highly aromatic and flavorful herb with both medicinal and culinary uses. 

Medicinal Uses

Fennel is widely employed as a carminative, both in humans and in veterinary medicine (e.g., dogs), to treat flatulence.  It is often made into a tea to help soothe the digestive system. I love fennel tea for when I'm feeling queasy.

In the Indian subcontinent, fennel seeds are said to improve eyesight. Ancient Romans regarded fennel as the herb of sight.

Fennel may be an effective diuretic and a potential drug for treatment of hypertension.

Syrup prepared from fennel juice was formerly given for chronic cough. As an antispasmotic, fennel acts on the smooth muscle of the respiratory passages as well as the stomach and intestines; this is the reason that fennel preparations are used to relieve bronchial spasms. Since it relaxes bronchial passages, allowing them to open wider, it is sometimes included in asthma, bronchitis, and cough formulas.

Culinary Uses

The bulb, foliage and seeds of the fennel plant are widely used in many of the culinary traditions of the world. The small flowers of wild fennel are the most potent form, and also the most expensive. Dried fennel seed is an aromatic, anise-flavored spice. The leaves are delicately flavored and similar in shape to those of dill, and thus make a lovely garnish. The bulb is a crisp vegetable that can be sauteed, stewed, braised, grilled or eaten raw.

Though fennel is available year-round, it’s at its best from fall to early spring and is usually considered a winter crop. So right now is the best time to eat this vegetable.

If you haven't been brave enough to try fennel because it looks weird and you didn't know what to do with it, give it a try.

Wash the whole thing and cut off the stalks and leaves. What you now have left is the bulb, which tastes delicious roasted, and despite what some recipes say, needs some cooking first. Simply popping the raw fennel into the oven just doesn't cut it in my opinion, so I boil a pot of water and drop in a fennel bulb that’s been quartered, cooking it for about 10-15 minutes to soften it up. With a slotted spoon I then remove the fennel from the water and dry it off with a kitchen towel. Then I place it in a small baking dish brushed with a little olive oil, sprinkle on a bit of salt, pepper and a generous helping of grated Parmesan cheese, and roast it in the oven at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, until the cheese just turns golden brown. It’s a delicious side dish to roasted chicken or sauteed fish.

I use fennel seeds (that I buy as an herb in the spice section of the market) as a crust for meat, especially pork tenderloin. In fact, my favorite way to prepare pork is to take a few sprigs of fresh rosemary from my herb garden, finely chop the leaves along with a tablespoon of fennel seeds, add kosher salt and pepper and blend all these on a cutting board where I then roll the tenderloin in the mixture until completely covered. The pork goes into a sauté pan and gets browned on the stovetop for a few minutes on each side. Then I pop the saute pan in a 350 degree oven and roast it for about 45 minutes. Easy and unbelievably tasty. The herbs and salt create a lovely crust for the pork and provide assertive flavor. You could do this with beef or lamb as well.

Fennel is also delicious with a mild, white fish and a nice way to marry these together is to use the feathery fronds. Place some chopped leaves under a fish fillet on a piece of aluminum foil, add a pat of butter, salt and pepper, and wrap up. Either bake in the oven or place on a medium grill until done (a thin enough piece of fish shouldn't take but 10-12 minutes). Steaming in this way allows a subtle fennel flavor to infuse the fish. Serve roasted fennel and mashed potatoes alongside it.

My mother has a delicious recipe where she quarters the bulb, cooks it in a little vegetable broth in a sauce pan on the stove top, and then makes a sauce for it out of Boursin cheese and cubed ham. If the sauce needs thickening, she adds a little corn starch to the broth. Once the fennel is mostly cooked, she pours the mixture into a baking dish and pops it into the oven for about 10 minutes. This would make a lovely lunch with a mixed green salad.

Fennel has been calling my name at the farmer’s market lately and I could no longer resist, so I picked one up for myself this weekend. I might try something new with it. I found a recipe for roasting it with olive oil and balsamic vinegar that sounded interesting. If the warm weather we've been having continues, I might chop it up raw and make a salad with it.  Or when I find that recipe from my mother, I'll make that. 

There is so much you can do with fennel. If you're getting bored with the same old vegetables you normally eat, be adventurous and try it.

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