March 06, 2019
Fennel, seeds or bulb, is a strangely unpopular spice and vegetable. Maybe it’s the licorice association. Even I, for years, associated fennel seeds with the sweet digestif Indian restaurants serve as a palate cleanser at the end of meals. Seldom, and only in one or two particular dishes, had I seen fennel bulbs or seeds used. One day, I was blown away by sautéed okra cooked with fennel seeds served to me by a Bengali friend. From then on, almost every time I cook okra, I throw in some fennel seeds. Slowly I began to widen my fennel horizon and discovered how delicious the bulb can be in salads or just braised. It is a sweet, fragrant vegetable packed with fiber and antioxidants. Fennel is in season now, so head out to the local farmers’ markets and get one of these aromatic, succulent bulbs to cook with. Fennel fronds (the skinny stems with tiny leaves on top of the bulbs) can often be toothsome and chewy if eaten raw. In this soup, we cook them down to a soft, deeply flavorful finish and garnish the bowl with finely chopped fronds.
Serves 4 to 6
1 medium fennel bulb
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 (14 ounce) can coconut milk
1 teaspoon fenugreek leaves
1 tablespoon grated unpeeled fresh ginger
Pinch of chili powder
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
2 to 3 stems fennel fronds
Trim and discard the bottom of the fennel bulb. Remove fronds and set aside for garnish. Chop the rest of the bulb into 1-inch pieces. Slice the stems into thin wheels along with most of the fronds.
In a medium-size saucepan, heat the olive oil until shimmering and pop the cumin seeds. Immediately, toss in chopped fennel immediately. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes on medium heat to give some of the fennel a light brown color. Add salt, coconut milk, and 1 1/2 cups water. Bring the mixture to a boil then reduce the heat to a simmer and cover with a tight-fitting lid, cooking the soup for another 20 minutes. The fennel should now be soft. Add the fenugreek leaves and grated ginger. Cook for 5 minutes more and then let it rest for another 10 to 15 minutes.
Serve the soup, evenly distributing the cooked fennel. Garnish the bowls with chili powder, olive oil, and fennel fronds.
For a richer version, replace the olive oil with ghee and the coconut milk with cream.
Add shrimp to the soup at the end for another layer of flavor. Depending on size, shrimp will cook in about 2 to 3 minutes.
If you hate the taste of licorice, use the fronds minimally.
Replace the cumin with mustard or coriander seeds.
December 02, 2022