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The hills of Sonoma County are not very subtle about telling you that it is the end of summertime; it puts on a very distinctive attire. The soft green landscape of spring and early summer has dried to a rich golden hue, a sharp contrast to the vineyards now lush and heavy with grapes. In thick patches all along the roadsides and up into the valleys, are the tall, silvery green stalks of wild fennel. With their feathery blue-green leaves and sunny bright yellow umbel of flowers they stand like sentinels welcoming you. Their fragrance heavily perfumes the air making it sweet and licoricey.
Fennel's appearance at this time of the year is a reminder that now is the ideal time to be using it in the kitchen or out on the barbecue. Its licorice flavor makes it a cool and refreshing addition to a wide variety of dishes.
You can use all parts of fennel. Chop the leaves and add it at the last moment to add flavor to potato salad, dressing, dips, or cream sauce. Add fennel leaves to bouquet garni for a lively taste. The bulb can be eaten raw in salads, giving it both flavor and crunch. Personally I prefer to blanche it lightly for salads -- the taste is more delicate that way. It can also be added as a vegetable to stews or sauteed like an onion to add flavor to pasta or meat sauce. I love to eat it the way the Italians do: lightly sauteed in olive oil, seasoned only with a bit of fresh cracked pepper and salt making it a light and savory foil for roasted meats.
The seeds should be used when you want to get the most pungent flavor. The seeds are most commonly found being used in sausages, pickles, lamb, duck, or pork dishes and as an important ingredient in curries and in and on breads. Try the seeds combined with chopped calamata olives and sun dried tomatoes the next time you bake a rustic style loaf of bread. Fennel is also great for a picnic with lamb and a bottle of Zinfandel.
The flavor of fennel blends well with fish, both fresh and pickled. Use the leaves and root in court bouillon for mild flavored fishes, or use the sauteed and chopped seed in a barbecue seasoning rub for salmon.
Even the flower umbels make a showy garnish. They do have a strong taste so be careful where you place the sprig. Since they are not commercially available, I carry a small garden scissors with me for convenient roadside gathering.
The fennel that grows wild around Northern California is Foeniculum vulgare. There is a bronze colored variety, Foeniculum vulgare rubrum, which can be found at nurseries. The leaves look their best in early spring. A third variety, Foeniculum v. dulce, or F. v. azoricum, also known as Sweet Fennel, Florence Fennel, or Finocchio, is the one that produces the "bulb" used in cooking (it is technically not a bulb at all, but a swelling at the base of the stalk). All of these varieties are members of the Umbelliferae family, which includes coriander/cilantro.
Like most of the herbs, fennel is native to Southern Europe. It likes the hot, full day sun, does best in a moist soil, but can thrive in rocky, dry, soils. In fact, once established, fennel needs very little water all summer. Its height, up to 7' tall, makes it a decorative fence line plant.
The Romans were very fond of the young shoots, eating both for the flavor as well as in the belief that it would control obesity. Even the original Greek name for fennel was derived from the word "maraino," meaning to grow thin. This belief was held even as late as the herbalist Culpepper's time when he wrote of fennel that "all parts of the plant are much used in drink or broth to make people lean that are too fat." There may be some backing to that belief since the seeds are known to be a slight appetite suppressant. The Puritans would chew the seeds during periods of holiday fasting to stave off hunger.
Fennel was considered on of the nine sacred herbs to treat disease during Medieval times. It was also thought to fight off evil spirits, which is why it was jammed into keyholes and hung on doorways, especially on Midsummer's Eve.
Charlemagne was a great believer in the healing properties of fennel , which even today is used a colic suppressant, a breath freshener, and a mild digestive aid. In 812 A.D. he declared that fennel was essential in every imperial garden.
You truly need an imperial sized yard to plant fennel, so instead I enjoy it in its wild state. As I drive through the country side, its sweet fragrance recalls summers past, and savory meals enhanced by that licorcey herb.
Halibut with Fennel and Golden Tomatoes
This is not only a light and satisfying dish for a warm summer evening, but with the vivid white of the halibut,the bright gold of the tomato and the rich green of the fennel leaves it is visually appealing as well.
4 Halibut filets, about 5 oz each
2 T Olive oil
1 Fennel bulb cut in strips, about 2 cups
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 T lemon juice
1 1/2 cups dry white wine or champagne
1/4 t. fresh ground black pepper
1 large golden tomato, chopped
1 T Fennel leaves, coarsely chopped
Heat oil in a pan. Add the fennel and saute until just golden. Sprinkle with salt. Add the garlic, lemon juice, wine , and pepper. Lower heat and cook for 1 minute to blend flavors. Place the filets in the pan, along with half of the chopped tomato. Cover and cook over medium heat until the fish is cooked, adding a bit of water if the mixture gets dry. When the fish is done, remove from the heat, and add the rest of the tomatoes, stirring just to heat them through. Remove the fish to a serving dish and spoon the fennel/tomato broth over it. Garnish each serving with a sprinkle of the chopped leaves.
Linda Gilbert is a Bay Area freelance journalist, a cooking class instructor, and co-owner of a Sonoma catering company, Broadway Catering and Events.