I remember the first time I saw fresh fennel in the grocery story. I was living in Cambridge and fennel was definitely a rarity. What the heck is it, I thought! I bought a couple bulbs and brought them home but I had absolutely no clue what to do with them. I remember cutting the tops off and all I could think about was those ropes of black licorice we ate as kids and I so despised.
Those bulbs sat in my refrigerator for a few days. Every time I opened the refrigerator to get milk or butter , they stared me in the face. I couldn't let them go to waste but I didn't know what to do with them either. I had a few cookbooks and read everything I could about fennel.
OK, I'll make a soup. I sauteed some onions in olive oil, added the diced fennel and chicken stock to cover. I simmered until the fennel was soft, let it cool and then pureed the soup in the blender. A dash of salt and a few drops of lemon juice were just what it needed to bring my fennel soup to life. The soup was delicious and much more delicate than I thought. And it definitely didn't taste like a piece of black licorice.
Later when I cooked at Chez Panisse, we added fennel to lots of dishes,- braised meats, thinly sliced and tossed fresh and crunchy into salads and poached on an aioli plate. This past weekend when I was at the Farmer's Market, there were piles and piles of fennel. It's definitely the season, I thought. But I also couldn't help thinking of my days in Cambridge so I bought a few bulbs for old times sake.
SALMON AND FENNEL CHOWDER WITH FENNEL POLLEN CRÈME FRAICHE
3 bulbs of fennel with stalks and greens
3 leeks, white and 1-inch of the green, coarsely chopped
3 1 /2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups bottled clam juice
2 cups water
¾ cup crème fraiche
Large pinch of fennel pollen
½ teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup heavy cream
12 ounces salmon fillet, skin and bone removed, 1/2-inch pieces
Remove the green fennel tops. Chop coarsely and reserve. Cut the ends off the fennel and remove any outside leaves that are damaged. Chop the coarsely. Wash the chopped leeks and drain well.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium low heat. Add the fennel and leeks and sauté until the leeks are soft, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the clam juice and water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the fennel is soft, 20 minutes.
In the meantime, in a bowl, combine the crème fraiche, fennel pollen, lemon zest, lemon juice, and 1 tablespoon reserved fennel tops. Season with salt and pepper and reserve.
In batches, puree the soup in a blender until very smooth. Add the cream and season with salt and pepper. Place the soup back in the soup pot and heat over medium heat. Add the salmon and simmer 2 to 3 minutes.
To serve the soup, warm over medium heat. Ladle the soup into bowls and drizzle with the crème fraiche and fennel greens. Serve immediately.