Why Not Fennel?


On a recent shopping trip to the local farm stand, I decided to let myself get inspired by the cornucopia of fresh winter produce and create a warm comforting dish suitable for a weekend lunch or dinner. Much to my delight, I walked into the Green Thumb Organic Farm in Watermill and spotted some beautiful crisp bunches of fennel alongside whimsically shaped bright orange carrots. I had been reading a lot about the unique health benefits and culinary versatility of fennel, long favored for its aromatic anise-like flavor and superior digestive and health benefits. Whereas in many parts of the world fennel has enjoyed immense popularity since ancient times, this perennial crop remains largely neglected in this country, albeit used occasionally as a garnish, spice or digestive tea. So why not make fennel the star of my next meal and give it the full attention it deserves? Fennel also boasts a unique combination of phytonutrients and powerful antioxidants, and since I like to pack a nutritional punch into everything I prepare, I can’t think of anything better to sustain me during the long winter months on the East End.

Seeing the fennel and carrots side by side, I was inspired to make a creamy carrot-fennel-ginger soup. Luckily, just as my light bulb went off, Patty Halsey, who has had the farm in her family for 12 generations since the 1600s, offered some suggestions on how to cook the fennel. I asked her about this plant’s popularity on the East End, and how it complements other locally sourced ingredients. She told me some chefs puree or roast it, and that it is traditionally served with fish, or in the case of Todd Jacobs of Fresh Hamptons in Bridgehampton, he likes to feature it on his winter menu alongside the coriander crusted Mecox Bay pork tenderloin. He also uses it as a stock base for his lobster tomato soup. Now my mouth was watering. Patty prefers to braise or roast in the oven until it caramelizes. She pointed to the variety of winter kales on the shelves, like the Siberian white kale, the red Russian kale and the purplish Lacinato, saying they would taste great sautéed with fennel and leeks. On my way out, I picked up some organic vegetable stock, ginger and fresh thyme to garnish. At home I whipped up a wonderfully delicious and highly nutritious soup: a puree using all the ingredients on my list. Here’s to fennel, my new winter inspiration!

Creamy Fennel-Carrot-Ginger Soup

2 medium fennel bulbs (with leaves)
1 pound carrots, quartered lengthwise
1 medium onion, quartered
1 garlic clove
1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger
3-5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch of fresh thyme (with springs)
2 1/2 cups organic vegetable or chicken broth
2 1/2 cups water

Slice fennel bulbs 1/4 inch thick and toss with carrots, onion, garlic, and drizzle with olive oil, then add springs of thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Spread in a sheet pan and roast, stirring occasionally, until browned and tender, about 25 to 30 minutes at 450°F with rack in lowest position.

Blend half of vegetables in a blender with the broth until very smooth, removing thyme beforehand. Transfer to a medium saucepan. Repeat with remaining vegetables and water. Thin to desired consistency with extra water and simmer 10 minutes. Season with extra salt and pepper, and add thyme springs to garnish.