In Wisconsin, we tend to think that “invasive species” refers mainly to zebra mussels, Eurasian milfoil and Canada thistle. In California the list might well end with fennel. Driving in California, you will see miles of shrubs that look a bit like dill along the highways. Those bushes are actually fennel, a plant native to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It has been used by doctors and cooks for thousands of years and was probably brought to California by the people who also brought wine grapes to the state.
Fennel seeds stick to clothing, wagon wheels, car tires, bird feathers and animal hair, and soon feral fennel was thriving. With much of the state enjoying a Mediterranean climate, California seemed like a beautiful new home to the new immigrant families from places like Italy, Spain and Greece. Fennel also found it the ideal place to “be fruitful and multiply.” Today, fennel is a major pest in the Golden State, but it is also one of my favorite herbs.
Fennel has the same flavor as anise, but it has a milder or softer effect in recipes. It is cultivated today around the world. The bulbs, leaves and seeds are all used in cooking. I have tried a couple of recipes with fennel bulbs, but we depend mainly on the seeds.
Jerri and I use them in making marinara and spaghetti sauces and include them in a spice mixture we make for commercial pizzas that we “doll up” with extras like tomatoes, green peppers, onions and mushrooms.
If you like mild Italian sausage, you will enjoy the flavor of these pork chops. They are quick and easy to cook but make a delicious main dish for an elegant dinner.
4 pork chops, each about 3/4 inch thick
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic
1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. fennel seed
2 T olive oil
3/4 cup dry white wine
Crush the fennel seed with a mortar and pestle and mix with the flour, salt and pepper. Peel and mince the garlic. Put the olive oil in a frying pan over moderate heat.
Dredge the chops in the seasoned flour and fry them until they are a dark golden brown. Sprinkle the minced garlic on them and add the wine. Cover and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes.
If the sauce is too thin, raise the heat to moderate and remove the cover for the last few minutes to thicken it.
Serve with a glass of the wine, a salad, bread and rice or pasta.
NOTES: Couscous pilaf goes well with these chops as does a steamed vegetable such as carrots or green beans.