02 February 2011

Narcissus flower and fragrant fennel doth one posy twine

This is a story of failure.

I want to like fennel. I do. I like the flavour of anise. I love the idea of a winter vegetable that isn't a starchy root. I want to be able to add thin slices of it to my salads. I'd like to roast it, to carmelise it, braise it, bake it, just like all the recipes say.  I want to enjoy it.

I can't. Every time I try it, I get hung up on the texture, which is like wood.

Shaved thin on a salad? Like crunching on wood splints for basket making. Roasted? Gloriously fragrant mulch. Baked, braised, steamed? No go.

This weekend, I gave it one last try. Fennel baked in cream turned up in one of my feeds, and I thought well, with that much cooking, and that much butter and cream, maybe, just maybe, it'll work.

I mean, with that much cream, anything's got to improve, right?

So I tried it. I got two beautiful fennel bulbs from Trader Joe's. I followed the recipe exactly. I cut the bulbs into half-inch wedges, as directed. Drowned them in cream. Sprinkled in the parmesan -- good parmesan, I should note, not that crumbly stuff in the green can. Dotted the top with butter. Baked them covered for an hour, and uncovered another 30 minutes. That's an hour and a half in the oven, my friends. 90 minutes at 425 F. Surely if anything was going to mellow out the fennel's texture, it would be that.

When at last it was done, it looked beautiful -- better than the photo on the Saveur site. Smelled beautiful. How could it not?

And the texture was still ligneous. All that cooking, all that fat and moisture, had not softened the fennel one bit. It was like gnawing on a cream-soaked stick.

I don't know if I'm doing something wrong in the cooking, or if my mistake is in thinking fennel can somehow have a more digestible texture. Maybe 'woody' is just the essential quality of fennel bulbs and I'm an idiot for thinking they can be different.

At any rate, I think I am done with fennel.


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