Garden 'weed' turns into a real sweetie in the kitchen

September 16, 2001|By Rob Kasper

At first I thought it was a weed. It had all the characteristics of a troublesome plant. It was tall, gangly and uninvited.

Like most weeds, I noticed it only when it got in the way of something I planted. This plant with green stems and golden fronds had overrun some tomato plants. As I whacked the plant back into submission, I noticed a pleasing aroma. When I snapped its stem, it smelled somewhat like licorice.

Eventually I figured out that this was not a weed, this was Foeniculum vulgare, or fennel.

Having identified fennel, I then tried to work out how to use it. Books I consulted told me that the fennel seeds could be used to spice up homemade sausages or sauerkraut. I eat both but make neither, so I wrote off most recipes for fennel seeds. A couple of recipes that used the bulb or root of the fennel plant looked promising. But that would require digging up the plant, and I wasn't ready to do that. After all, this plant was thriving, and since it wasn't a weed, I did not want to uproot a success story. So I when I found a recipe using stems of the fennel plant, I gave it a try.

The recipe called for mixing chopped fennel stems with carrots that had been julienned, or cut into long, thin strips. The carrots and fennel were first coated in butter, then cooked in a mixture of chicken broth and wine. It sounded promising.

Moreover, the dish came from a cookbook that featured recipes from gardeners. In a note that accompanied the recipe, the fennel grower, Louise DiManno of Hamilton Square, N.J., explained that this recipe was born out of necessity. A frost was threatening the fennel crop, so the gardener acted quickly, cutting off the tops and roots of the plant, and sauteing them with carrots.

As many gardeners know, frost inspires many recipes. Rather than leave a crop in the field, you yank it out, take it home, and then figure out what to do with it.

My attempt to replicate this dish was semi-successful. The flavor of the carrots and fennel was wonderful. The fennel added a distinct sweetness to the carrots. But the texture of the stems presented a problem. They were tough.

As I ate the shredded fennel and carrots, I found myself pulling pieces of fennel stem from my teeth. It was not a pretty sight. I nicknamed the dish "the carrots and the sticks."

Yet the dish delivered such delightful flavor that I vowed to make it again. When I reread the recipe, I saw that it called for "immature" fennel stems. Instead of the soft, pliant, youthful stems, I apparently had used tough, old ropey guys.

Next time I will use greener, softer fennel stems. Or when frost threatens, I will abandon the stems and dig up the roots.

Carrots Braised With Fennel

Serves 4

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 medium carrots, (about 1 pound) trimmed, scraped and julienned (long, thin strips)

8 immature fennel stalks, or 1 medium fennel bulb, (about 6 ounces) trimmed, and cut into same thickness as carrots

1/2 cup chicken broth

1/3 cup white wine

1 / 4 cup chopped fennel fronds

Heat the butter and oil together in a large saute pan until the butter melts. Add the carrots and fennel and stir to coat. Cover the pan and cook over low heat for 10 minutes, or until the vegetables have wilted.

Add the broth and wine, raise the heat to medium and cook, uncovered for 10 minutes more, or until liquid has evaporated and vegetables are fork tender.

Transfer to a serving dish, sprinkle with chopped fronds, and serve right away.

From Smith & Hawken Gardeners' by Victoria Wise (Workman Publishing 1999).

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