Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Fun with Fennel

When it comes to pickles, my brother-in-law Dave is the man. He pickles turnips in gin, carrots in mirin, and cucumbers just about any way you can imagine. That's why it's surprising that when you're talking fennel, I've become the pickle maven. I first tasted pickled fennel courtesy of my friend Jeri Quinzio, who, in addition to being an accomplished food blogger and award-winning culinary historian (her book on ice cream, Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making, recently won the International Association of Culinary Professionals prize for culinary history), is an inspired cook.

Whenever you go to dinner at Jeri and her husband Dan's, you can count on having some kind of interesting mezze to start the meal. Her pickled fennel is one of my favorites.

Adapted from a recipe by Mario Batali, these pickles are truly tasty -- a great combination of sweet fennel and pungent vinegar. They're one of the big reasons I eagerly anticipate the first fennel of the season. So when I saw a couple of admittedly tiny bulbs at the Wake Robin Farm stand at the Portsmouth Farmers' Market, I pounced.

When I served my fennel pickles last weekend as one of the appetizers for a cocktail cruise, they disappeared fast. Fortunately, they're truly easy to make -- I mean how many two-step recipes do you have in your repertoire? Best of all, there's no waiting around for these pickles to cure. You can eat them as soon as they cool down from their pickle bath. Jeri uses less vinegar than Batali recommends -- and I use the full amount because I love that puckery taste -- must be my Pennsylvania Dutch heritage. Do whatever works best for you or your guests. But make plenty -- because even people who aren't crazy about regular pickles can't seem to get enough.

Fennel Pickles
Adapted from Mario Batali’s Babbo Cookbook 

Two to three cups white wine vinegar (Jeri uses two, I use three.)
Two tablespoons sea salt
Fifteen - or so - black peppercorns
Two garlic cloves, peeled
One tablespoon fennel seeds
One-quarter cup sugar
Two fennel bulbs, more or less, depending on size, cored and cut into two- inch strips.
Some snipped fennel fronds for garnishing the cooled pickles, if desired

1. In a large nonreactive saucepan combine vinegar, two cups water, salt, peppercorns, garlic, fennel seeds, and sugar. Bring to a boil.
2. Add the fennel pieces and cook until just tender. It varies from five to ten minutes or more. Remove pan from heat and set aside to cool.

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