Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Learning to Love: Fennel
I've always thought people were full of it when they said, "...you either love it or you hate it!" about pretty much anything. I mean, I'm sure there are plenty of people who aren't passionate either way about corn, Dancing with the Stars or leggings, among other things. But I finally realized that there was indeed one thing people really felt torn on: licorice. I have yet to meet anyone that shrugs their shoulders and says, 'eh' when asked if they like it (and if it's you, please let me know), instead always hearing proclamations of disgust or lust. I've always hated anything that tasted remotely of licorice, whether it was a jelly bean, sambuca or grilled fennel. But thanks to my CSA and the overall seasonal eating trend I've come face to face with fennel in more iterations than I care to remember. From cold fennel shooters to grilled fennel salad and fennel pollen dusted sweetbreads, try as I might to escape it each fall I can't, and last week it caught up with me in my CSA box. For once I hoped that I'd arrived too late, that all of the fennel had been taken by the licorice loving foodies of the group, but alas it seemed there was plenty left for me to experiment with. So I trotted home with it in my tote and began to wonder what I could possibly do with one of my most hated flavors.
I eventually settled on a soup since that was the one fennel flavored dish I had ever managed to enjoy. I looked back on the fennel soup I'd tasted almost exactly a year ago at Blue Hill at Stone Barns for inspiration. Our server had asked if there were any ingredients we did not like, and not wanting to limit the chef's creativity (even though I knew it was fennel season), we said no--we're open to anything. So imagine how far my heart sank when the first course to come out of the kitchen was a bowl of fennel soup. Much to my surprise it was pure white and velvety on the tongue with just the lightest air of fennel. It wasn't in-your-face fennel but its presence was definitely felt and tasted. Except for a handful of things (say...bacon or cheese) I generally feel that everything in moderation is a good mantra to follow and it seems like fennel is at its best when used in that way.
Armed with the memory of a soup I hadn't tasted in a year, I headed into the kitchen to make what I hoped would be a close approximation in both flavor and texture to the one at Blue Hill. In the end I decided that potato would be the perfect foil for softening the fennel's flavor and adding some body to the whole soup. I began by peeling and chopping the potatoes into fairly small chunks (so they take only 10-15 minutes to cook through) and then boiling them in salted water. Meanwhile I added 2 chopped scallions (for a mellow onion flavor), 2 roughly chopped garlic cloves and the chopped fennel to a non-stick skillet with two tablespoons of butter. I seasoned the mixture lightly with salt and let it sweat until everything was softened. Then I drained the potatoes, reserving 2 cups of the cooking liquid for thinning out the soup in the blender. Then I tossed the potatoes and the fennel mixture into the blender along with 1 cup of chicken stock to help it blend. Then I slowly added the warm cooking liquid until I got a silky smooth texture. It didn't even end up needing any salt or pepper, and it came together in about half an hour total. The soup wound up tasting exactly as I'd wanted. It was clearly a creamy fennel soup (with no actual cream), but the flavor was subtle and smooth. I can't say that I'm completely in love with fennel, but like so many things (Britney Spears, perhaps?) I've learned to live with it's existence, and even enjoy it in small doses. Here's the final recipe:
Creamy Fennel Soup
1 small fennel bulb, roughly chopped
2 green onions/scallions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 large or 3 small Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2 Tbsp butter
1 cup chicken stock (non-tomato based veggie stock would work here too)
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add potatoes and cook until done, about 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat the butter in a non-stick skillet and cook garlic, green onions and fennel on medium low heat until softened, about 7 minutes. Season with salt while cooking
3. Drain the potatoes, reserving about 2 cups of the cooking liquid for the soup. Allow them a few minutes to cool, then add potatoes and fennel mixture to a blender along with the chicken stock. Puree and add reserved cooking liquid until the soup thins out to a velvety consistency. Taste for salt and serve topped with croutons or fennel fronds. Enjoy!