Wednesday, March 26, 2008

When Fennel Went Funky

The first time I ever cooked with fennel it was in a potato leek soup. The fennel boiled with the potatoes until the whole mass was soft and gummable--then I pureed the bejesus out of it. If you make a lot of soup, I highly recommend getting a stick blender. It's kinda reminiscent of a mini-jack hammer, and it allows you to puree soups right in the pot. No more scalding splashes of soup hitting your hands as you plop it in and out of the blender or food processor. But this isn't about my adventures in Potato Leek Soup making, rather it's about my rejection of the tried and true fail-safe recipe in lieu of the unknown.

I was perusing the meat section of my local Winco, contemplating if I could, on my student budget, rationalize buying $8.98/lb. lamb chops (alas, I could not and settled for ground lamb--which coincidently was significantly fresher than the chops) when a women came up to me.

"Excuse me," she said. "But what is that?!"

She was pointing at the bulb of fennel I had propped against side of the shopping cart. It's fronds waved gently like out of control dread-locks.

"It's fennel," I replied. It has a faint licorice flavor. I put it in potato soup. But you can also use the fronds like any fresh herb. Kinda like dill." Embarrassingly , I babbled on and on about the merits of fennel and different preparation methods. None of which I had actually tried. The woman's smile faded. She backed away from the meat case. Mumbling a quick "Thanks." Before she high-tailed it out of there.

As I finished shopping it occurred to me that I needed to expand my fennel repertoire. I settled on grilling. Yesterday was the official start of baseball season (even if happened in Japan), and my husband Kent, wanted to celebrate by grilling and watching Major League. I made lamb burgers and brushed red bell pepper and fennel slices with olive oil to grill as well.

The fennel was disastrous. Perhaps it was because it was about 40 degrees outside. I was wearing a wool coat because it was so cold. Even though the fennel spent a good 30 minutes on the grill, it was still tough, stringy, and barely chewable.

However, all was not lost. I saved the fennel. Tonight, I made a fennel/ tomato sauce to smother the leftover burgers in. I finished the fennel by caramelizing it over medium heat in a tiny bit of olive oil, then I added a can of diced tomatoes, fennel seed, a bay leaf, and dried oregano and simmered it until it reduced a bit. The uncooked, leftover lamb burgers, I seared in my George Foreman grill (I know, it's a gimmicky, novelty grill. But, in my defense I picked it up for two bucks at a yard sale).

Over the lamb burgers the fennel tomato sauce was wonderful. The fennel had a slight sweet tone in addition to its normal anise pungency. The fresh spices in the burger had intensified after 24hrs. of refrigeration. Because the Foreman grill cooked the burgers so quickly--they had less of that strong, wet wooly-coat flavor lamb gets if it's over cooked.

I'm glad I didn't give up on the fennel. That's the great thing about cooking, though. Because we need to eat so often, we always get another chance to try it all again, to get a do-over. Now, I just need to figure out what to do with the rest of the raw fennel bulb in my crisper drawer.

If anyone has a great way to cook fennel, I'd love to hear about it.

Herbed Lamb Burgers

1lb. ground lamb
fresh oregano, minced
fresh rosemary, minced
fresh Italian parsley, minced*
1 shallot, minced
1 clove of garlic, minced
fresh ground black pepper (to taste)
Don't add salt before cooking, as it will make the burgers dry out.

Mix all ingredients. Shape into patties. Grill over charcoal or on counter top grill.
* Cook's Note: For the best flavor, let the ingredients mingle and get to know one another for several hours. Refrigeration intensifies the fresh herbs, so you'll want to use about a T. each if you have time to let your ground lamb and herbs have their own little cocktail hour. If not, then use slightly more.

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