Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Anise 1, World 0

I thought I would reflect a bit on my most recent holiday Feast.

Black licorice. I don't know anyone who likes it (except I think my mom likes it). I remember eating pizzelles that were heavy on the anise flavor and just gagging with disappointment that the crisp delicacy had been poisoned with that flavor. At one of my favorite college coffee shops, I used to pick the anise seeds out of the rock-hard biscotti that I would eat (one piece would last a whole week. I hope to write about that later). I still don't care for italian sausages that rely heavily on fennel seeds for flavor.

Then about three years ago, I bought a little french taragon plant, and I fell in love. For some reason, tarragon's mild anise flavor seemed so much more delicate, so gentle. Nothing at all like the harsh explosions from anise seeds. I started using it in everything. I made a tomato-tarragon spread that I use on bagels and crackers. People can't place the taste. (I even took the plant with me when we moved up here. It overwintered successfully, and I almost wept with joy - I hope it makes it to planting).

My secret mission for the past two years has been to try to make anise more accessible. My biscotti, although edible without a jackhammer, uses a mixture of anise, vanilla and almond. I couldn't think of it without the slight anise tinge. I experimented with springerle this past christmas season with a heavier anise flavor. Again, even those who profess not to like anise ate the cookies.

However, I have not been able to move past to fennel. Inevitably, someone sees it, and turns their nose up. Two years ago at Thanksgiving, I made a mixed greens salad with fennel, orange and onion. No one touched it (now, this could also be in part because I made WAY to much food. Two 15 pound turkeys for 12 people? WTF was I thinking?). I would buy it, and Mr. H would just shake his head.

"Trying again?"

"Hell yes."

I am happy to say, that this Easter, fennel won. I made a potato-leek-FENNEL gratin. And one of the cousins asked for the recipe. Now, you have to keep in mind that most of my family considers things that don't come with a powdered cheese sauce gourmet. And I don't mean that in a disparaging way, but more as a description of their context. I usually joke about the ingredients I'm sneaking into the meals. I love sharing things that my family hasn't seen or tasted before. I gave my step-mother-in-law her first taste of blood orange this weekend, and I just loved seeing her face at the different taste. Anyway, I digress....

The gratin was really tasty. Sure, you couldn't really taste the fennel that much. And it was covered in heavy cream and cheese. But the fennel DID add something to the dish, and I wouldn't leave it out...

Potato-Fennel Gratin (based on the recipe from epicurious)

2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
3 chopped leeks (white and pale green parts only)

2 medium-size fresh fennel bulbs, sliced very thin
About 3-4 large red-skinned potatoes or other waxy potato, peeled, thinly sliced (2 lbs?)

3 cups grated Jarlsburg cheese

1 cups chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
3/4 cup whipping cream

Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter a large glass baking dish (mine was a little larger than a 13x9). Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add leeks cook until tender, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

Layer potatoes so they cover the bottom of the dish. Sprinkle layer with about 1/2 of fennel and 1/2 of leek mixture, follow with 1/2 of cheese (you're going to end up with about three layers - top layer being potato). Layer potatoes on top of the cheese, repeating the previous fennel, leek and cheese layers. Top with a layer of potatoes. I was dangerously close to the top of the gratin at this point, so I pressed everything down.

Heat cream and chicken broth and pour over potato mixture. The liquid will come close to submerging the top, but probably won't submerge the top layer. I pressed down the potatoes so they got some moisture on them, but wasn't terribly concerned. Several people had reported that there was too much moisture in the original recipe, so I cut it back and just kept an eye on it.

Bake for about an hour or so or until the top layer is golden brown. As it cooks, the potatoes should shrink a little, and the liquid covers them. If not, add a little more cream-chicken broth liquid to them. You don't want too liquidy of potatoes.

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