If your love life seems dull or your eyesight is failing, eat fennel. It's good for what ails you, according to legends associated with this plant, which was used as a medicine in ancient times and first mentioned in a papyrus historians date to 1500 B.C.
The ancient Greeks enjoyed fennel, Charlemagne planted it in his domains, the great chef Taillevant served it to his employer, Charles VI, and it continues today to play an important role in the cuisines of France and Italy. But when they see the bulbous vegetable, most Americans ask, "What is it?"
Fennel is a perennial plant related to carrots and dill. Native to the Mediterranean region, it has feathery leaves, overlapping celerylike stalks and a knobby bulb. Its flavor is delicate, slightly sweet and licoricelike.
The leaves, which look like dill, can be snipped and used as an herb. Its aromatic yellow seeds, classified among the medieval four hot seeds, are an ingredient in curries, Ethiopian berbere sauce and Chinese five-spice powder. Its crisp leaf stalk is eaten raw or cooked as a vegetable. And its dried stalks are the traditional fuel for roasted fish in Provence.
When I see it in the supermarket, I never pass up this vitamin A-rich vegetable, which was first planted in American gardens in the 19th century. Today it is grown commercially in California and is in its peak season right now. I prefer large, fresh-looking bulbs that are easy to trim. Like celery, fennel dries out quickly, so wrap it in plastic before refrigerating or, better yet, store it in a water bath.
Newcomers to the delights of fennel may think that its anise flavor limits its use, but centuries of experimentation have proved fennel's versatility. I like to serve the raw sliced stems and bulbs with cheese or dips and with tomatoes dressed in lemon vinaigrette sauce and sprinkled with some of the feathery leaves.
I also add fennel to grain pilafs and soups. And sometimes I boil it Greek style with herbs or bake it in wine and serve it with roast meats or fish. Fennel also makes an unusual stuffing for poultry or sauce for pasta.
Any way you prepare it, fennel is sure to surprise and please. And it has only 30 calories per cup.
FENNEL WITH CAPER-ANCHOVY SAUCE
Fennel is an indispensable ingredient in Italian cooking. This simple recipe for baked fennel with anchovies and capers is a favorite in the Tuscany region of Italy.
4 large fennel bulbs, sliced
2 anchovy fillets
4 tablespoons capers
1/2 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Soak fennel in cold water for 30 minutes. Boil in water flavored with coarse salt for 5 minutes, using just enough water to cover. Drain and cool under cold running water. Dry on paper towels. Chop anchovies and capers. Pour all but 1 tablespoon oil into a crockery bowl, add chopped ingredients and mix well with a wooden spoon, adding salt and pepper to taste. Oil a 10-inch by 4-inch by 3/4 -inch Pyrex dish with remaining olive oil and arrange half the fennel slices on bottom. Pour half the sauce from the bowl over fennel and repeat. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven 25 minutes. Serve immediately. Serves four to six.
RED SNAPPER WITH FENNEL
Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck serves this classic dish at Spago, his restaurant in Los Angeles. He emphasizes fennel's licoricelike flavor by adding anise-flavored liqueur to the sauce. And because customers asked for the recipe, he included it in "The Wolfgang Puck Cookbook" (Random House, 1986).
4 whole red snappers or striped bass, 1 pound each, heads on
salt and pepper to taste
4 medium fennel stalks
2 small fennel bulbs, sliced
10 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
4 tablespoons fish stock
2 tablespoons Pernod or anisette
1 teaspoon minced fresh dill
juice of 1/2 lemon
Clean, scale and wash fish. Season with salt and pepper. Chop finely 1 tablespoon of the fennel stalks and reserve. Place remaining stalks inside fish. Arrange fish on a rack on a large roasting pan. Roast fish in a preheated 450-degree oven 20 minutes or until done, or grill over a moderately slow fire with mesquite, if desired. Cut fennel bulbs in 1/4 -inch slices and season with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter and the oil in a skillet, add fennel slices and saute until tender-crisp. Keep warm.
In a saucepan bring stock and Pernod to a boil. Whisk in remaining butter, a little at a time, over very low heat. Add reserved chopped fennel, dill, lemon juice, salt and pepper. To serve, place each fish on a dinner plate, surround with sauteed fennel and top with butter sauce. Serves four.End of gourmet-