Flavours of Provence – Fennel

The line dividing Provence from the rest of France is less a geographic boundary than a culinary one. It marks the point, along the Rhône River, at some unspecific location south of Lyons, where the sun shines brighter and hotter, and butter country gives way to the land of the olive oil. Provence is a singular place with an inviting cuisine, and in two and a half millennia of rhapsodizing, foreign converts have yet to exhaust the subject. 20 of the most important ingredients in 20 of the most important dishes from this remarkable corner of the world are presented.

Wild fennel, however, is no unwelcome weed. It smells wonderful and it has food value, too. You can do as the Italians do and dry out the stalks to use as an aromatic. Or you can tear handfuls off the tops of wild fennel to use as you would dill. But how much chicken soup and marinated salmon can one person eat?
Tame fennel is much more serviceable; it is a slower-growing plant that has a big, meaty, delicious bulb on the bottom. It shows up sautéed, steamed and baked in dozens of recipes.
In Provence, where evenings don’t officially start before the first pastis – which itself is flavoured with aniseed, which in turn tastes similar to fennel – a touch of fennel is treasured in grilled Mediterranean white fish. It infuses the tender flesh with a hint of herby sweetness. As is true in seasoning so many French dishes, the trick is determining how much to use. And any French chef can answer that: “The right amount.” Fresh fennel starts to grow early in fall and hangs on through April, so there’s always plenty for winter cooking.

Baked bass with fennel (Loup au fenouil); 4 servings
2 1 kg whole striped bass, cleaned, scaled
3 tablespoons olive oil
1½ tablespoons fennel seeds, coarsely crushed
60 ml anise-flavoured liqueur (such as Pernod)
750 grams fennel bulbs, halved lengthwise, cored, thinly sliced crosswise, fronds reserved
Lemon wedges

1. Preheat oven to 220°C. Brush 40x25x5 cm baking dish with olive oil.
2. Rub fish inside and out with l tablespoon oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sprinkle fish cavities with crushed fennel seeds. Arrange fish in prepared baking dish; drizzle with 60 ml Pernod. Cover tightly with foil.
3. Bake until fish is almost cooked through, about 25 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add sliced fennel and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
5. Sprinkle sautéed fennel over fish. Bake uncovered until fish is opaque, about 5 minutes longer. Garnish fish with reserved fennel fronds. Serve hot with lemon wedges.

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