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I Spice: Fennel

Green, aromatic fennel seeds. (Monica Bhide)

I have a problem with the way people describe fennel seeds: licorice-like. I am not sure I agree.

I am not a big fan of licorice, yet I love fennel seeds. To me, they have a hint of anise and even a touch of green cardamom. As for fennel bulbs . . . well, they are very strong-tasting and do indeed remind me of licorice, with the texture of celery.

Fennel seeds are aromatic, green and slightly larger than cumin seeds. They are used in cuisines around the world. In India, you can find them in curries, breads and drinks -- and, of course, paanch phoron. Raw fennel seeds are said to aid digestion, which is why you’ll often see a bowl of them by the door at Indian restaurants.

Recipe Included

In Italy, fennel is used to flavor cured meats. It is said that in ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder “called for them to be chewed to wake the mind and relieve flatulence.” Chinese five-spice powder uses fennel as one of its ingredients, as do some blends of herbes de Provence. Some chefs like Mario Batali also use fennel pollen, which is a very concentrated form of fennel, tastes great and IMHO, is quite expensive (Amazon: .5 ounce for $10).

Southern cooking master and cookbook author Nathalie Dupree says she first met fennel in England in 1970. She fell so in love with the taste that she planted it in front of her Georgia restaurant, Nathalie’s.

“I love everything about fennel," she says. "The way it looks in my garden, the aroma from its delicate slim fronds brushing against me as I walk, the rays coming out from its center, holding seeds that burst with flavor.”

The plant re-seeds well, so it grew and grew. “It is such a giving plant. It keeps on giving, just like the Energizer Bunny. I would give the plant, seeds and fronds to my customers,” she says.

Dupree loves to grind the fresh seeds, as that lends the most flavor. She uses the ground seeds in bread doughs, and both the fronds and seeds in salads. She stuffs the cavity of whole fish with the fronds and grinds the seeds on top; adds fennel seeds to fish stock and fish stews, to chicken stews -- particularly with tomato and garlic -- and to pork dishes. “Really," she says, "the question is what not to use it in?”

I only recently started using fennel bulbs for cooking. Earlier I would walk past them at the store with no idea of how to use them. But now I know that all parts of fennel are useable. Dupree employs the stalks as a base for grilling fish. She and I both agree the bulbs can be thinly sliced as a great raw addition to any salad. You can saute, roast or braise them for a milder flavor.

The leafy parts make a great garnish. Mark Bittman, in “How to Cook Everything,” advises using fennel in place of celery -- as long as you know, he says, that while the texture is the same, the taste is very different. In fact, if you’re making a pasta sauce with sweet Italian sausage (already flavored with fennel seed), you can substitute chopped fennel stalks for celery to really bump up the flavor.

Buy fennel seeds at any Asian grocery store; bags of them are usually available on the international aisle of large grocery stores as well. Be sure that the fennel bulbs you buy, often mistakenly labeled “anise bulbs,” are firm and white. If they have not been trimmed, they will have firm green stalks and feathery dill fronds. Smaller, flat fennel bulbs are great for braising. You can refrigerate fresh fennel loosely in a plastic bag for up to a week.

This is the perfect time of year to make Asparagus and Anise Soup. If you’re feeding a crowd, try a classic Pork Shoulder Porchetta, and if you’re feeding but a few, you'll have great leftovers. Then finish your fennel-y meal with a not-too-sweet Torta al Finocchio.

Is fennel the new cumin? Local chefs and cocktail experts love fennel and I see it showing up everywhere. Chef Barry Koslow at Tallula uses lots of fennel seeds, for veal sausage with cavatelli, in pickled ramps, bread-and-butter pickles and in all of the restaurant's brines. Adam Bernbach at Proof makes a tincture of fennel seeds for a drink he calls Blackchapel. Indique Heights serves a chicken korma with coconut and fennel seeds.

And this last word from Dupree, which sounds like a fine way to handle finicky eaters: “So many people don't like licorice, and so shy away from fennel. I have learned not to tell people I am using it, and then find them saying, ‘Oh this is delicious, what is it?’ ”

-- Monica Bhide (Follow me on Twitter.)

Spice-Rubbed and Roasted Flounder Fillets
4 servings

The recipe for Spice-Rubbed and Roasted Flounder Fillets can be made with other white-flesh fish, such as tilapia, shown here. (Monica Bhide)

One way to skirt calories while making a tasty meal is to rub foods with spices and herbs, particularly those fish lacking a robust flavor themselves. The spices here aid in making their own saffron-y sauce.

MAKE AHEAD: The fish needs to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours and up to 6 hours.

Adapted from the upcoming "Nathalie Dupree's Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking" (Gibbs-Smith, 2011).

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
2 tablespoons coriander seeds, ground
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, ground
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground
2 tablespoons fresh parsley or cilantro, chopped
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons (about 2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Four 6-ounce skinless flounder fillets (may substitute other thin, white-fleshed fish fillets), pin bones removed
1 large fennel bulb (outer layers removed), quartered, cored and cut into thin slices

Combine the ginger, coriander, cumin, ground fennel, parsley or cilantro, saffron, lemon zest and lemon juice in a small bowl. Rub the mixture on both sides of the fillets and transfer them to a flat dish (use a spatula if you'd rather not color your fingers with the saffron). Cover with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours and up to 6 hours.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lay the fennel slices in a baking dish; top with the fillets and any collected juices from the dish. Roast uncovered for 5 minutes per inch of thickness.

Serve hot.

Per serving: 190 calories, 34 g protein, 7 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 80 mg cholesterol, 170 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  May 7, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, fennel, recipes  
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