(a recipe for braised fennel yum and exploration of what it is we all do)
Often, while sitting at my little market stall, I am approached by people who want to know what a herb DOES.
People are always interested in the function of person, plant or object alike, because we want to know how best it can serve us. But when it comes to people and plants (because objects are often born with a job in mind, like, for example, a kettle, whose function, first and foremost, is to boil water. All other functions, say, to be beautiful and to match the curtains are secondary) I am loathe to start spouting off functions.
Of course, at a party it is really difficult to walk up to a person and say ‘who are you?’. Most likely you’ll be given a name and a job in response, which will leave you in the same place as if you asked ‘what do you do’. And quite honestly, the same thing happens with a plant. A question of ‘who are you’ to a plant will often be met with a use of some kind. For example, me asking a lovely desert lavender plant the other day was met with the image of a fevered man being fed a hot tea of desert lavender flowers. Is desert lavender (as if desert lavender was a person) a hot tea for fever? Among many other things. But if people and plants gave up all their secrets upon first meeting each other then what point would there be in developing relationships and getting to know each other?
Essence has to be worked for, and understood without words. I’d venture to say that the second you start to describe somebody with words, the essence is gone (try describing the person you love the most in a series of sentences and they just fall flat). And the same goes with plants. Reading a list of indications on a page will only give you so much information. To understand it, you have to dive in, get to know it. Taste it. Feel it. Let it become a part of you and flow from your pores. Only then do you start to understand what person or plant is made of. Only then do you start to understand how they fare in different situations and how there are some things they will do even if its not in their job description (maybe they’d only do it for you because you took the time to get to know them) and then some things that they do automatically because its in their very nature. Plants and people, as far as I see it, are very alike in this manner.
Fennel is one of those things- yes, it’s good for flatulence, and yes, it tastes delicious, but to say that it is these functions is to reduce it so a list of facts. Energetically, one would say that its warming, soothing, moistening. That it relaxes spasm and has a slight expectorant effect. That it excels in cough syrups and cramp formulas and can soothe a colicky belly and sore throat alike. But it’s more than that still. It has an affinity for the feminine- that moist, dark, retreating principle- and the seeds are a bit more expansive and action-oriented, though the whole thing is commonly used to increase milk production… The leaves, when munched on or tea-d with are sweet and soothing and can make most borderline disgusting formulas much more palatable. Also, according to Culpepper, tea made of the leaves, seeds and roots will ‘make people lean who are too fat’, but you didn’t hear it from me (I think this is because fennel will, in fact, make you feel sated even when you are not).
Unfortunately there’s very little way to convey it being more than that other than with a few chicken-scratches and possibly an interpretive dance with a big hug at the end. So let my little list and description be enough right now, until you go and cook some up for yourself (after which you’ll return to say ‘yes, yes, I understand completely, it can do all that and so much more, let’s make some chicken-scratches and interpretive dance together, to signify everything that it is and then go back to drinking our fennel tea, glad for its flatulence-dispersing and indigestion-soothing effect, but understanding that it is not (nor is anybody) its job description).
Braised fennelly goodness*
As many fennel bulbs as you have people
1 teaspoon fennel seeds per bulb
1/4 cup white wine/ champagne or leftover apple cider. The recipe is non-specific, just use whatever is lying around leftover from another meal.
Butter. 1 tb per fennel bulb.
Oil. Olive oil. White fir infused olive oil if you have it but a good slightly peppery one will do in case you don’t.
1/2 tsp salt.
A good crunch of pepper.
Dear readers, the first thing you should do with a bulb of fennel is to chop off the fronds with one swift and confident motion. The purpose of this is twofold: first, to show that you are not afraid of something strange, and second is to show your cutting board who is boss. Take the fronds, wrap the stalk-ends in a rubber band, then tie that rubber band up somewhere dry with a string. I like to keep my hanging herbs in plain view, partly because it looks slightly witchy and slightly like a French provincial cottage kitchen, but also because when I can see them, I will use them, whereas if they sit drying in a closet somewhere I will only remember after a year when they have gone brown and the fragrance has been lost to the surrounding bedsheets. You can do this with a few fennel bulbs, and you’ll be left with a big bunch of hanging plant matter, and a few bulbs lined up neatly on your cutting board.
And this is where it gets fun. My favourite thing to do with fennel involves a hot oven and a cast iron pan. Chop the bottom off the bulb, and then chop the fennel bulb swiftly in half down the middle, from bottom to nose. Lay each half flat, and then slice into quarter-inch pieces, which you can toss immediately into a cast-iron pan. Do this with all the bulbs until there are none left, then drizzle them with the olive oil, sprinkle over the fennel seeds, salt and pepper. Pour in the wine/champagne/cider, dot with butter, and put in a hot oven (preheated to 375) for about 30 minutes. When its done, you’ll know it, because your house will smell like sweet anise and green and cooked wine. And most likely somebody (perhaps you?) will be clawing at the oven in desperation. Remove from the oven, chop a few of those frond-pieces that you have hanging nearby and sprinkle them over the top. Serve in its pan, with a cool drink and a big chunk of fresh, warm bread.
*This is a technical name.