Jul 27, 201710:28 AM
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.