Big safety warning here, about fennel and everything else: This is an entertainment blog by a writer who rarely leaves the sidewalk and can only identify two kinds of lettuce. There are plenty of competent plant books out there. Study as many as you can, and go on plant walks with a competent guide whenever possible, before you pick anything. For example, one book warned that people might see life-threatening poison hemlock seeds and think they are fennel when they are not! What’s more, even plain edible fennel from the grocery store comes with medical warnings from the Mayo Clinic. So again, study up all you can and don’t take it from me.
There is a very popular Keeping Up With show on the television set nowadays, about a family with a lot of home businesses who are very good looking and wear nice clothes. I haven’t seen the show, but can guess that any family would have an interesting time keeping up with the Wings. Judging by the daily activities in our courtyard, the Family Wing (which must come from an ancient Chinese character meaning “Cavalcade of ingenuity and friendly helpfulness”) needs a reality show of their own. Which is pretty funny, since Captain Wing has been editing and making copies of Neighbor G’s memorial service video, the real reality show from last Sunday.
In this exciting episode of our neighborhood saga, I found a tall thick plant of feral fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) with a broken main stem. The flower heads had already bloomed, and were full of tender green seeds. The whole plant had toppled over and onto the sidewalk, but looked completely fresh and untrampled. The strong licorice scent from the broken bruised stems was heavenly.
There’s nursery fennel in my garden, and I’ve often snapped off and chewed on the green seeds. Unlike the hard pointy fennel seeds purchased as a seasoning, the fresh seeds are tender and sweet. But with this plant, uncultivated and close to the road, I didn’t eat anything without washing. (There is research proposing connections between microbes, and illnesses including gum disease and Alzheimer’s. It pays to be careful.)
Still, I took out a bag and filled it with dozens of flower heads.
Passersby and drivers paid me no mind. Anyone in that building could have pounded on the window and said “What’s the big idea? That plant was standing in the front yard of this apartment complex!” And if they did, I would hand over the bag right away with some recipe tips. But in general, people hurry past my foraging activities looking embarrassed for me. Once in a rare while, some older person might flash me a smile. Perhaps they are picturing the earwigs that will soon be running up my kitchen wall? Maybe all of them know that fennel is classified as a noxious weed by the extension service, and that getting rid of it is just being patriotic.
At home I swished and rinsed the flower heads very well in three changes of baking soda water with a final rinse, pouring all the rinse water into the garden bucket to throw outdoors; it would not be a good idea to start fennel growing from raw seeds down in the kitchen plumbing. Flower arrangers might enjoy working with these fragrant nest-like flower heads; they are curved up like an upside down umbrella, and cling together so well that by dropping flowers on top of each other you can easily build a whole pyramid of them in a tall stack.
Maybe if the seeds were mature and dry, they would have rubbed right off the stems. But these green seeds did not. I trimmed them off, then simmered the stems to make soup stock and set aside the stems for compost. The seeds stayed in clusters with tiny spidery stem bases. Some people might have the patience to pick off each seed, but they don’t live here. Because the seeds grew right on the street and not in my garden, I simmered them in the stock for about five minutes. While waiting, I rearranged some counter items to form a comfy hiding place to a panicking earwig. Then I drained and spread the seeds on a tray to dry. Their texture was fun to work with, fluffy and light, like a woolly green fennel fleece. The seed flavor was excellent; sweet and fragrant at first, then a hint of saltiness.
This raw seed idea appeals to me, and might appeal to others. I knew a woman who couldn’t stand any food made with fennel, but it turned out that she was fine with the taste. What she couldn’t stand was the mouth feel of unexpected tiny sharp points. Well, chewy tender raw seeds might be a better option. In Indian restaurants, it’s nice when after a meal the waiter brings a little dish of fennel seeds to chew on; they help ease digestion. But raw seeds would be even nicer to chew on if one can get them.
Finally the seed fleece went in a container in the freezer. It will be easy to pinch off fluffy pieces and add them to cooking. Today for lunch I prepared a spoonful of kimchi with almond flour and nutritional yeast in a bowl. Then I blended several stalks of celery, drank the celery juice, then mixed the celery pulp with two beaten eggs and some rice milk and paprika and a drop of Red Boat anchovy sauce. When the cooking eggs had set solid, I sprinkled on some fresh fennel seeds. The omelette finished cooking until it puffed up, then went in with the kimchi. The fresh seeds were a nice contrasting touch.
But, we were trying to keep up with the Wings.
Arriving home after foraging, I found the Captain inspecting his tomato patch. He was already strategizing improvements in his tomato seedling cultivation techniques for next year, having selected the five (5) varieties that he will raise, planning which neighbors will receive which seedling type based upon their garden spaces, and arranging his south wall and black pots for optimal heating units of sunshine. That’s just how he thinks about things all day long.
I showed him my batch of fresh green seeds. This time, thought I, this will be something nice and novel for him to see. But, what did I know.
“I’m ahead of you,” he said.
“We all know that,” I told him.
“No, I meant my fennel seeds. I have a whole batch in my dehydrator now. They’re almost ready. See, before harvesting these you should have waited until the seeds turned black, on a dried plant; then they’ll fall right off.”
Well, when it comes to stuff lying on a public sidewalk, for the sake of cleanliness I wanted to harvest immediately. But his harvest method certainly sounds more efficient.
Later today when I return a bunch of kitchen dishes from Mrs. Wing’s cooking triumphs, we’re all going to have a fennel showdown, a taste test of the two batches to see which method has the best flavor and fragrance. I like my tender chewable seeds. But it’s easy to predict that for long-term pantry storage, his dried method will yield a superior professional result.
So as it turns out, the family had their whole winter supply of fennel seeds almost ready before I even went out foraging. There is just no keeping up with these folks. But as the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ’em — join ’em.” On our street their work ethic, industrious ingenuity, lovely tended garden, and eagerness to share information and goodies with everyone else is the best entertainment value around.