Saturday, January 11, 2014

Braised fennel, Fenouil braisé

If we wanted to turn a bit saccharine we might call this "Magic on a plate." For it seems that, once upon a time, the ancient Greeks considered fennel holy. Inside the hollow stalk of Foeniculum vulgare -- literally meaning something like 'common hay' -- Prometheus hid the fire he stole for man from the gods; and the plant entire was particularly holy when it came to strange, fearsome rituals in honor of the wine god Dionysus. These are his four months, you know, November, December, January, and February, the two months of winter on either side of the winter solstice. "A third of the whole year was held sacred to him; the four winter months were the months of Dionysus," Walter Pater says in Greek Studies -- a Series of Essays (1910). Perhaps it's natural we want wine to warm us then. A fennel stalk twined with ivy and topped with a pine cone constituted a "thyrsus," which the god's women worshipers brandished when they retreated to the mountains to dance, hunt, and tear animals -- and men -- to pieces whole and alive. See The Bacchae, author Euripides, ca. 450 B.C.

A dish of fennel, a type of F. vulgare developed in Italy in the 1700s and called Florence fennel, might be nice for Thanksgiving, perhaps? -- provided one serves it minus the whole tearing-men-alive part. Here we eat the fleshy bulb at the base of the long, feathery-tipped, parsely-resembling herb. You will like the recipe all the more if you are fond of fennel's characteristic faintly licorice taste. That word comes from Middle English licorys, via the old French licorece and the Latin liquiritia. See "liquor." (And why ever not?) Ultimately we recall the Greek glycys-rhiza, meaning sweet root.

Frankly I am not. Fond of licorice, I mean. The recipe is from Richard Olney's Simple French Food, 1974. In the photo above, the chopped clear-whitish pieces are fennel, the large red-tinged wedges are whole garlic. 

Richard Olney's Braised Fennel, Fenouil Braisé 

2 pounds tender bulb fennel
10 or 12 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup water

Remove outer stalks from fennel bulbs, pull out the strings from those now at the surface of the bulb, slit each bulb in two, and put, dry, along with the garlic cloves, to cook in the olive oil in a skillet big enough to hold them side by side.

Salt them, turn occasionally over a period of about 30 minutes until all are browned lightly, pour in the water, bring to a boil, and cook over very low heat, tightly covered and barely simmering, for about 1 hour. "The fennel halves should be meltingly soft while still holding their shape and the water should have reduced with the caramelized material from the pan to a rich, deep brown syrup that coats the vegetables like a light sauce. The garlic cloves will be appreciated by some in themselves, but they will have done their delicate work for all in caressing ever so slightly the fennel and its juice. Pepper. [That's an instruction.]"

I should say so.

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