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Jul 27, 201710:28 AM
Haute Plates

Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene

Cooking with Odd Ingredients

I am a haphazard gardener. I’ve been doing it for decades, but for the most part I’ve simply grown things I knew would require little attention and did well in containers. Translation: herbs. A few years ago I started experimenting with raised beds, and had varying degrees of luck with tomatoes, greens, cucumbers and a few other vegetables. When my wife and I moved into our house in Broadmoor, and a large flowering pear tree in our backyard fell over, it opened up a lot more area, and ever since I’ve been expanding my kitchen garden.

I still try to grow things that don’t require a great deal of effort or time on my part, but I also aim for plants that I can’t buy easily and/or inexpensively in the market. I still grow herbs, for example, and this year I’ve also had luck with a curry tree, an unrelated herb called curry plant, slender Japanese eggplant with white skin, an heirloom cucumber, arugula and for about the 5th year in a row, fennel.

The fennel I grow doesn’t produce the sort of fat, white bulb you see in the grocery. My plants produce more elongated bulbs that tend toward the stringy. I’m not entirely sure whether that’s because I have the wrong variety for bulbs, because I don’t heap dirt or straw around the base of the plant as they grow, and/or because the temperatures down here are too high. It doesn’t matter too much, since I use the fronds as an herb, the stalks in broths or to stuff things like fish, and pollen as a finishing touch on dishes that benefit from a subtle licorice flavor.

Fennel comes back in my garden year after year from the root. Recently, though, I harvested a plant and the root looked a bit rotten. I pulled it, and turned out I was wrong; it was just the top, and almost certainly would have come back. I was going to replant it, but I was struck by how similar the actual root looked to celery root. I broke off a small trailer and sure enough it both looked and smelled a lot like celery root.

So that got me thinking about whether I could use fennel root in the same way. My first inclination was to assume I could, but I know enough about plants to know that just because one part of it is edible, doesn’t mean another part won’t make you sick, at least if you consume enough of it over a period of time.

My research online was not initially promising; typing “recipes for fennel root” or similar searches into Google turned up dozens and dozens of pages with recipes for fennel bulb, but nothing about the root. Eventually I did find a few websites, generally those focused on gardening or foraging for wild edibles (fennel is an escaped cultivar in parts of the US), that answered the question. Fennel root is edible. The next question, of course, is what it tastes like.

Raw, it’s very mild, and leaves a slight, almost menthol sensation on the tongue. From what I read, that’s due to a high concentration of anethole, the compound that gives fennel its licorice flavor and also reportedly certain medicinal uses. When I cut the root, it reminded me of galangal, which is to say tough as nails, and with a fibrous core. There wasn’t enough of the root to pull off my original intention, a salad with blanched fennel root, celery, apple and walnut in a creamy dressing, and the resemblance to galangal, and horseradish, to some extent, took me down the next path: grating it.

It’s tough enough that my microplane had a hard time with it, but I ended up with a few tablespoons of the root. I assumed that like celery root fennel would discolor when exposed to air, so I immediately put the gratings into a small bowl with some vinegar. At some point in the next day or two, I’m going to buy some oysters and see how the root substitutes for horseradish. I’m also going to pulverize some of it in a mortar and pestle and combine it with basil, olive oil, a little cheese and some nuts to make a pesto.

I’m not going to be growing fennel for the root any time soon, but the whole experience got me thinking about whether there are other plants in my garden that I can use in different ways.

If you garden, and have some ideas along those lines, please share them with us in the comments.

 

 

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Haute Plates

Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene

about

Robert D. Peyton was born at Ochsner Hospital and, apart from four years in Tennessee for college and three years in Baton Rouge for law school, has lived here his entire life. He is a strong believer in the importance of food to our local culture and in the importance of our local food culture, generally. He has practiced law since 1994, and began writing about food on his website, www.appetites.us, in 1999. He mainly wrote about partying that year, obviously.

In 2006, New Orleans Magazine named Appetites the best food blog in New Orleans. The choice was made relatively easy due to the fact that Appetites was, at the time, the only food blog in New Orleans.

He began writing the Restaurant Insider column for New Orleans Magazine in 2007 and has been published in St. Charles Avenue, Louisiana Life and New Orleans Homes and Lifestyles magazines. He is the only person he knows personally who has been interviewed in GQ magazine, albeit for calling Alan Richman a nasty name. He is not proud of that, incidentally. (Yes, he is.)

Robert’s maternal grandmother is responsible for his love of good food, and he has never since had fried chicken or homemade biscuits as good as hers. He developed his curiosity about restaurant cooking in part from the venerable PBS cooking show "Great Chefs" and has an extensive collection of cookbooks, many of which do not require coloring, and some of which have not been defaced.

Robert lives in Mid-City with his wife Eve and their three children, and is fond of receiving comments and emails. Please humor him.

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