Fragrant fennel is often said, unfairly, to taste like licorice. In fact the taste is light and delicate, elusive rather than persistent, and a perfect complement to salads, soups and stews.
Fennel is closely associated with Italian cuisine and, according to Elizabeth Schneider's "Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables, A Commonsense Guide," ancient Romans used fennel to season pork, lamb, seafood and beans. Modern Italians still make a fennel and pork sausage. Fennel is available from early fall through late spring. It's low in calories -- about 30 per cup -- and high in vitamin A and niacin.
Preparation can be as simple as slicing raw fennel bulbs or stir-frying with other vegetables (Ms. Schneider suggests shallots, garlic, leeks, mushrooms, red pepper and strips of seeded tomato or julienned squash).
A more elaborate preparation comes from Perla Meyers' "Art of Seasonal Cooking." (Simon & Schuster, 1991, $27.50). Ms. Meyers was among the earliest proponents of a fresh and seasonal approach to shopping and cooking. This recipe is among her offerings for winter. It has a lot of steps, and it seems to use every pot and pan in the kitchen, but the result is sensational and well worth the trouble.
In fact, the individual steps are simple and you can make things easier by doing all the preparation in advance: make the herb and spice sachet; chop the fennel and the shallots and peel the garlic; prepare the cheesecloth and strainers. You could even -- though it would surely be anathema to Ms. Meyers -- simplify further by using canned or processed clams. If you do, add 2 or 3 tablespoons of clam liquid with the wine and vermouth and skip the straining; add the clams with the fennel.
A bouquet garni is a bunch of spices tied together or tied into a little "bag" of cheesecloth. If that's too much trouble, forget the sachet and add a tablespoon of parsley flakes, 1 bay leaf, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, a half-teaspoon of ground fennel sends and several grindings of black pepper with the wine; remove the bay leaf before serving.
Spaghettini with clams in fennel and saffron cream
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large fennel bulb, trimmed of all greens and stalks and cut into fine julienne
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons water
1 bouquet garni (recipe below)
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
6 whole black peppercorns
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup vermouth
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons shallots, finely minced
20 littleneck clams, well scrubbed and rinsed
1 pound spaghettini
drops of Pernod, optional
finely minced fennel greens or fresh Italian parsley
In a medium saucepan, combine the heavy cream and saffron, bring to a boil, and immediately reduce the heat. Simmer for 10 or 15 minutes, or until reduced to about 1 cup. Strain into a bowl and set aside.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the fennel and toss gently in the butter. Season with salt and pepper and add the water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and braise, covered, for 6 to 8 minutes, or until just tender. If all the water has not evaporated, remove the cover, raise the lid and cook, stirring often, until the juices have evaporated.
Place the bouquet garni, fennel seeds, and peppercorns in the center of an 8-inch square of cheesecloth. Gather up the sides to enclose the herbs and spices completely. Tie with a piece of kitchen string and set aside.
In a large, heavy casserole, combine the white wine, vermouth, garlic, shallots, herb and spice sachet and clams. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and cook, covered, shaking the pan back and forth and transferring the clams with a slotted spoon to a bowl as they open. Continue to cook until all the clams have opened. Discard those that do not.
Remove all but six clams from their shells. Discard the shells and dice the clams. Reserve the diced and unshelled clams in a medium bowl with a little of their cooking liquid.
Strain the clam-cooking liquid through a double layer of cheesecloth into a large, heavy skillet. Place over high heat, bring to a boil, and reduce slightly. Add the reserved saffron cream, bring back to a boil, and reduce again until slightly thickened. Remove from the heat and add the remaining butter, 2 tablespoons at a time, whisking until the sauce is smooth and velvety. Taste and correct the seasoning, adding a large grinding of black pepper, and return to very low heat. Keep warm.
Bring plenty of salted water to boil in a large pot, add the spaghettini, and cook for 3 or 4 minutes, or until al dente. Immediately add 2 cups cold water to the pot to stop further cooking and drain well.
Add the spaghettini to the skillet of warm sauce together with the cooked fennel julienne and diced clams. Toss gently to just heat through. Taste and correct the seasoning. If you want a more pronounced fennel taste, add a few optional drops of Pernod.
Serve at once in individual shallow bowls. Sprinkle each portion with some minced fennel greens or parsley and garnish each portion with 1 whole clam in its shell.