While it is admittedly fun to wander through the small forest of farmers markets stalls and pick up the more exotic stuff for your holiday cooking, being overly ambitious can often contribute to the stress. Unless you like looking up items in Larousse Gastronomique before you cook with them, which is entirely possible. But maybe just throw a whole lot of fennel into your market bag instead. It's one of the most versatile vegetables around, yet interesting enough to make you feel like you're cooking something special. It's gorgeous and aromatic, so doubly fun to have on your kitchen counter.
Fennel also has the sort of flavor -- clean, mild, vaguely onion-y, laced with anise -- that matches extraordinarily well with a lot of the other things that you'll want for a Thanksgiving meal. Pretty much anywhere you'd make a mirepoix you can add fennel, adding it to the onions or celery, or substituting it for either one. I once made a classic French onion soup, but with an enormous pot of sliced fennel instead of onions, which was kind of remarkable. Here are five excellent recipes for fennel, which might come in handy in the next few days.
Go into your kitchen and turn to p. 336 of Sunday Suppers at Lucques (if there's one cookbook every Angeleno should have, it's this one), and you'll find Suzanne Goin's recipe for a warm vegetable salad that you could serve at any holiday meal. The fennel, cauliflower, radishes, carrots and baby broccoli (you could probably substitute if you have other stuff) are blanched, then served with a vinaigrette zapped with anchovy and chile de arbol. All of which you could probably serve as either salad or appetizer -- or finger food, a giant bowl of it, your still life as canape.
Sometimes, very frequently in fact, simple is better. It's also often easier and cheaper, which can be a big plus this time of year. Judy Rodgers is the patron saint of simple cooking, in which basic food and excellent technique combine to make stunning dishes. If you have not made her roast chicken, you maybe should, like right now. Anyway, Rodgers' recipe for braised fennel exemplifies this principle. It would pair awfully well with a roasted turkey (or duck) too.
Along with many other root vegetables, fennel is a fantastic thing to put into a casserole or gratin. This supremely easy recipe is basically just layers of fennel and potatoes baked until they're tender in the center and nicely golden on top. With thyme and garlic, wine and salt and lots of black pepper, you have something that would pair with just about anything, and would bake up easily in the back of the oven while you roast other things as well.
See also: 5 Great Recipes for Celery Root
When in doubt make soup, especially this time of year. If you're not familiar with Martha Rose Shulman's Recipes for Health column in The New York Times, you should be, not least because she's based in Los Angeles and writes pretty awesome cookbooks too. This recipe is a version of vichyssoise, with fennel added to the traditional potato and with no dairy (handy for the lactose intolerant). A terrific dish to make ahead, this not only pairs well with any turkey-related feast but would be pretty great served with gravlax for a New Year's spread. (Just thinking ahead.)
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Stuffing is not only insanely easy to make, it has the advantage of being able to accomodate most anything. Don't have enough of one kind of bread? Just throw in another. Ran out of bacon? Use sausage, or omit the meat altogether. The same principle applies to the rest of the ingredients too. Using fennel in your stuffing instead of or in addition to onions and celery gives the dish an extra lovely herbal note, and you can chop up some of the leafy bits for some green or to use if you run out of fresh herbs. If not apples and bacon, then maybe cornbread and sausage -- for which there's a recipe in the November Bon Appétit issue that just came out. You know, the one with the picture of the giant roast turkey.
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