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Finding fault with fennel isn't an option when you taste this delicious dish

By Wolfgang Puck, Tribune Content Agency on

I am often fascinated by the kinds of foods and flavors that some people may love while others refuse to eat them. We call such ingredients "acquired tastes," because those who love them optimistically believe that, prepared properly and served under the right circumstances, anyone can develop a craving for them.

Not every taste, of course, can be acquired that way. I doubt, for example, that repeated exposure probably won't win many converts to certain exceedingly smelly foods along the lines of Limburger cheese from northwestern Germany, or the Southeast Asian fruit called durian, which has an odor politely compared to dirty socks.

Other acquired tastes, however, are not only far less assertive but also pleasant and can easily win over converts simply through the right kind of introduction. Take fennel bulb, for example, which is at its peak of season right now and can be found in farmers' market stalls and well-stock supermarkets alike.

Also known as Florence fennel or by the Italian finocchio, this vegetable is actually a member of the carrot family. But, rather than being slender and usually orange, white and pale-green fennel roots are bulbous, almost heart-shaped, and they're distinguished by a flavor most people consider very similar to licorice.

And that's where the challenge comes in. Most people think of licorice as a flavor for candy, and even that candy itself is an acquired taste. So why would you want to eat it as part of a savory preparation?

The answer is that, when properly cooked, fennel develops a satisfying, deeply savory sweetness as appealing as that of caramelized onions. And its sweet perfume, also found in another variety of fennel prized as an herb for its feathery green fronds, also found on fennel bulb, makes a wonderfully bright seasoning for certain light and savory ingredients like seafood or chicken.

For proof of that fact, I'd like to share one of my longtime favorite recipes for an impressive yet simple main course: roast rock cod with fennel and beurre blanc. Though it starts with a whole fresh fish (which you should ask your seafood shop or supermarket department to clean and scale for you), it's surprisingly easy to prepare, and cooks in just around half an hour. But that's enough time for the two fennel bulbs in the recipe to give the mild-tasting fish a wonderful aroma and flavor, while also forming a delicious vegetable side along with the potatoes, onions and tomatoes combined with it in the roasting pan.

The result is a dish that will have everyone you serve it to asking, "What is that beautiful, delicate flavor?" And you'll have succeeded in gaining new fans for the easily acquired taste of fennel.

ROAST ROCK COD WITH FENNEL AND BEURRE BLANC

Serves 4 to 6

1 whole rock cod, about 1 1/2 feet (46 cm) long, cleaned and scaled, or similarly sized whole fish such as snapper or black bass

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

5 medium fennel branches

2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and cut lengthwise into slices 1/2-inch (12-mm) thick, plus 1/2 fennel bulb, trimmed and finely chopped

4 fingerling potatoes, cut into slices 1/2-inch (12-mm) thick

2 medium yellow onions, cut into slices 1/2-inch (12-mm) thick

4 medium-sized tomatoes, cored and cut into wedges

Pinch crushed red pepper flakes

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 cups (375 mL) dry white wine or water

3 shallots, finely chopped

2 tablespoons Pernod or anisette

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces, at room temperature

1/2 lemon, juiced

2 lemons, cut into halves or wedges, for garnish

Fresh Italian parsley sprigs

Preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C).

With a sharp knife, cut an incision 1-inch (2.5-cm) deep all along the length of the fish on both sides of the backbone. Perpendicular to those incisions, cut incisions 1/2-inch (12-mm) deep into the flesh at 1-inch (2.5-cm) intervals. Season the fish all over, including the incisions and cavity, with salt and pepper. Put 4 fennel branches in the body cavity.

Spread 2 of the sliced fennel bulbs, plus the potatoes, onions and tomatoes, on a rimmed metal baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Drizzle generously with olive oil. Place the fish on top, body cavity down and backbone up, and drizzle generously with more olive oil. Pour half of the wine or water over the fish and vegetables.

Place the baking sheet on top of the stove over two burners set to medium-high heat. As soon as the liquid in the baking sheet starts to steam, carefully transfer the baking sheet to the preheated oven. Roast the fish, basting it occasionally with the juices from the pan, until its flesh easily separates from the bone when an incision is probed with the side of the basting spoon, 20 to 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan over medium-high heat, heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the shallots and chopped fennel bulb, and saute, stirring frequently, until translucent but not browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Carefully add the Pernod, which may flare up as its alcohol burns, and then pour in the remaining white wine or water and stir. Scrape to deglaze the pan deposits. Simmer briskly until the liquid has reduced to about 1/4 cup (60 mL), about 10 minutes.

Whisking continuously, add the butter to the pan 1 or 2 pieces at a time until it melts, forming a thick, creamy sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir in the lemon juice. Pour the sauce through a fine strainer held over another saucepan, and press down on the solids with the back of a wooden spoon to extract all the liquid. Finely chop the fronds of the remaining fennel branch, stir all but 1 tablespoon into the sauce, and adjust the seasonings to taste. Keep warm over low heat.

Use a pair of large spatulas to transfer the fish to a serving platter. Arrange the roasted vegetables around the fish and drizzle with 1 or 2 spoonfuls of the sauce. Garnish with lemons and parsley, drizzle the fish with a little more olive oil, and serve, passing the sauce separately.

(c) 2017 WOLFGANG PUCK WORLDWIDE, INC. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
 

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