The very ancient and now extinct, giant fennel plant known as silphium became associated with lovemaking because it was thought to be a powerful birth control agent. And guess what the seedpod of the silphium plant was a dead ringer for? It looked like the stylized version of the heart that we’ve all come to know: the rounded orbs at the top descending into the pointy bottom. How wonderfully ironic: the sanitized symbol of a heart is derived from the need for birth control. Hanky-panky and fennel, who knew??
I love random bits of culinary trivia like this, and I have the author, Robin Maxwell, to thank for clueing me in to the fennel connection. Her new book, O Juliet, is being released this February and her blog and love games contest are a fun diversion from the relentless bad news that seems to surround us. It is actually OK to take a break and think about something romantic for a change.
It’s a pity that this giant fennel plant is now extinct; although I’m pretty sure I’ve seen relatives of it in Italy. But there is plenty of fresh fennel in the markets right now so at least we have that to comfort us although I would caution against relying on it for birth control. If a guy whispers in your ear, “Hey Baby, come on let’s have some fennel and we can party all night.” Girl, you know he’s talking nonsense.
I recently found fennel in a supermarket under the sign for anise, so be warned. Just for the record, they are not the same plant, although they both belong to the Apiaceae family of plants. With the fennel plant you can eat: the pollen, the seeds, or the fresh bulb. With anise you just eat the seeds.
Wild fennel pollen or “finnochio selvatico fiore” is a staple in every Umbrian household. I use it on roast meats like pork and fowl: a liberal sprinkling of this magic dust, a bit of salt, and you get the most delicious, crispy skin on a roast chicken. If I’m making roast pork, I’ll coat it with the fennel pollen on the surface and then right before serving, pour a bit of pomegranate molasses on the meat. There is something about fennel and pomegranate that is a match made in heaven.
Fennel seed can be used just like you would anise seed: in sweet and savory preparations. I love the Indian custom of serving a little bowl of after-dinner dried roasted fennel seeds that you chew to freshen up your mouth and aid digestion after a spicy meal.
A fresh fennel slaw is a refreshing palate cleanser. It’s the perfect side dish when you have some thing rich and unctuous because it’s a clean, crunchy flavor counterpoint.
1 bulb of fennel
10-15 black pitted olives, roughly chopped, use more or less according to taste
Olive oil, pinch of salt, red wine vinegar if needed
Very thinly slice the fennel into a bowl. Working over the bowl so all the juices will run onto the sliced fennel, peel the orange, using a knife so that there is no white or pith left on the orange, discard the peel, then slice out the individual orange segments, roughly chop and mix with the sliced fennel. By the way, you have just ‘supremed’ that orange. Squeeze the left over core of the orange to extract all the juice. Add 1-2 T of olive oil, toss and check for acidity. Sometimes just the orange juice is enough and sometimes you need a bit more acid so you can add a little red wine vinegar. Toss in the olives right before serving, they will stain the fennel and if you put them in too soon the fennel gets all black pocked marked and diseased looking. Yes, I’ve done it and that’s why I don’t do it anymore.Roast Fennel
And if you like your fennel hot: roasted fennel is a tasty side dish, you can even serve it in place of roast potatoes if you like.
1 fennel bulb
Grated parmigiana cheese
Butter or Olive Oil
If you are into distilling your own absinthe, and who wouldn’t love to do that, fennel is one of the original botanicals used when making absinthe. One of these days, I’m going to get a still, retire into the hills of Umbria and start making moonshine.