It’s a little-known fact that many of the mainstays of Italian cuisine were in fact introduced by the Jewish community that has inhabited Rome for over 2,000 years. Vegetables such as artichokes and eggplant were ignored ingredients until they were noticed in the Cucina Hebraica (Jewish kitchen).
Fennel is another case in point. “Fennel is now considered a quintessential Italian ingredient,” says renowned Italian-Jewish cooking expert and writer Edda Servi Machlin, author of Classic Italian Jewish Cooking. “But until the Jews began to use it, others turned their noses down at it.”
Jews have been living in Rome virtually uninterrupted for over two millennia, having first settled there in large numbers after the fall of the second Temple. Large communities of Spanish and Portuguese Jews came to Italy after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and Polish and German Jews arrived in Italy in the 16th century. According to Machlin, it was the Sephardic Jews who turned fennel into a delicacy that only much later found its way into the Italian culinary mainstream.
Fennel is in season from fall through spring, and lends itself to a variety of preparations. While I love a crisp, fresh, fennel salad dressed with little more than lemon and olive oil, braising mellows the notes of anise that stand out in the raw ingredient. This dish makes a great accompaniment to fish or an herb-inflected roast chicken.
Braised Fennel with Raisins and Pine Nuts
6 medium fennel bulbs
1/4 cup olive oil
5 cloves garlic, sliced
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup golden raisins
2 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock
zest of 1 lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon lemon juice, or more to taste
Trim stalks and fronds (the green parts of the vegetable) from fennel bulbs, reserving fronds. Slice bulbs in half. Using a sharp knife, cut out tough inner root (it will be white in color) from each half. Slice fennel into 1-inch thick slices, rinse, and dry.
Heat olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until softened but not browned, about 3 minutes. Add fennel and cook 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add salt and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook 10 minutes. Remove cover, add raisins, stir, cover, and cook an additional 5 minutes.
Remove from heat, add lemon juice and lemon zest, and stir to incorporate. Transfer fennel to a bowl and spoon some of the liquid from the pot over the fennel. Top with pine nuts and fennel fronds and serve warm.