I have a hate-hate relationship with fennel.
At least, I think I do. I mean, I definitely know that I hate raw fennel, but I’m less sure about cooked fennel. After all, I like cooked things that have fennel in them – bouillabaisse, this quick fish stew…okay, that’s about it. I like two fish-based things that involve fennel, and it’s unclear whether I like them because of the fennel or in spite of it.
So I decided to go balls to the wall with cooked fennel to see how I feel about it once and for all: fennel soup with herb puree from David Tanis’s Heart of the Artichoke. It’s all fennel, all the time. It is the Ultimate Fennel Test.
You’d think I’d like fennel, especially raw, having grown up with an Italian mother who liked nothing more than to end a meal by gnawing on fresh fennel. Alas, my dislike of raw fennel is one more reason I’m a bad Italian (see also reasons #1: I don’t like olives, #2: I don’t like tomatoes, and #3 I don’t respect the authority of the Holy See). It’s a food memory I wish I could share, but it is not to be.
For the soup, I dutifully hacked up a couple of bulbs of fennel, reserving the fronds for the herb puree, and sauteed them in olive oil with a big honking onion and several cloves of garlic. When the veg was just soft and starting to color, I added some long grain white rice (which helps to thicken the final product) and chicken stock and left it to simmer until everything was tender and my apartment smelled like the inside of the fennel factory.
While it simmered, I threw together the herb puree: fennel fronds, basil, parsley, scallions and olive oil. I might have gotten a little cranky with the blender, which was not pureeing to my satisfaction, and jabbed at it with my spatula while it was running, nearly creating a silicon-herb puree. Luckily, Brian was much less cranky than I and was able to coerce the blender into doing its blenderly job without poisoning us all with spatula particulate.
When the soup was done, it too got a ride through the blender before being passed through a mesh strainer for Total Soup Smoothness. I always feel very chefferly when passing purees through a fine mesh strainer, as if it’s some mystical step that only the inducted chefs know to take. You know, or someone who’s read The French Laundry cookbook. Although if I were really listening to The French Laundry I would have run it through a succession of seventeen sieves of ever-finer gradation until it was as smooth as pureed angel wings.
I plated up my finished soup, added a spoonful of herb puree, drizzled over some olive oil for good measure, and made some goat cheese toasts that were mentioned nowhere in the recipe but I thought they’d be good. Then I realized I wasn’t hungry in the least, so I gave the bowl to Brian.
I did taste it, though, in the interest of scientific inquiry and finally getting an answer to The Fennel Question.
And that answer is: Meh.
Brian the fennel-lover, waxing rhapsodic, proclaimed this soup to be like a bowl of springtime. “It tastes like green!” he exclaimed. “I like it even more than the broccoli soup!” Which instantly put me on high alert, because that broccoli soup? Is the bomb diggity.
I tasted the soup (with the puree) and was left cold. I didn’t instantly dislike it, and if I’d been hungry I’d probably have kept eating it, but I didn’t exactly like it either. And it was certainly no broccoli soup; that’s just crazy talk. What it was was very, very fennelly, with a nice body and mouthfeel from the cooked, pureed rice. The herb puree was like a light pesto; it turned the soup a bright pea-green color when stirred in and added to the springtime flavor.
Anyway, I tried with the fennel, I really did. But it’s just not for me. What have you tried and failed to like?