Can you imagine the first caveman who yanked a fennel plant from the roadside and decided that the funny little brown seeds would be a great addition to sausage? (When I say “caveman” I probably mean “Italian”)
“What is fennel?” you might ask. I call it the devil seed. I remember the first time I bit into one of these suckers. I was enjoying an all-meat pizza (can’t remember where at) and I was gobbling up the last bits of scrap left on the pizza pan. I recall reaching for a small sausage ball and wondering what that interesting little seed was that was poking out of the side, yet unwittingly categorizing it as merely a part of the spices and seasonings. Thinking back to this gastronomically momentous yet insipid moment, it all seems to go by in slow motion…
Two fingers delicately pinch the sausage bit and makes its way towards my pizza hole [insert dream sequence here]
I can see it now, just like in the movies: the beautiful woman picks up the poisoned drink, known to be tainted only by the protagonist, her lover. He glances her direction and sees that she has unwittingly picked up the martini with the poisoned olive. The entire scene is in slow motion; the edges blur as the protagonist rushes toward her, screaming “Noooo.” But its too late. She has poised the glass on her lips and imbibed, sending the poison rushing through her veins, and causing her brain to instinctively say “What the %*?! was that!?”
My teeth crushed through that miniscule seed sending an explosion of bitterness onto my tongue that I’ve never tasted before. I actually gagged and questioned whether this devil seed was actually part of the sausage seasoning or some foul stowaway that ruined my lunch. Scanning the pizza pan, I noticed that several of these seeds were scattered about. Why hadn’t I noticed this before? (I’m not sitting under a tree, am I?) Why have I never tasted this disgusting seed before? Am I going to die?
Well, for years I instinctively shunned these seeds, laboriously picking them out of anything to prevent myself from ingesting them again. Until one day, my curious brain began to wonder what they tasted like. It has been so long that I just couldn’t remember. Kind of like having a baby. Its rumored that the body produces some alien chemical to make women forget the pain of childbirth, just so they can do it all over again. In my case, that blocked memory, likewise, served no purpose as I decided to eat that sausage loaded with fennel seeds, only to quickly turn it into an oral projectile.
Okay, first of all, fennel is a weed and actually considered an invasive species in the U.S. That should be your first clue to not put it in my food. The fruit of the plant is its seed, which looks like a grooved grain of rice, slightly more pointed at its ends, and brown or green when fresh and somewhat of a dull gray as the seed ages (see pic). The seed is edible, but that in no way means that it tastes good. It has a similar taste to anise, which tastes somewhat like black licorice, but more bitter. How that enhances the flavor of food is beyond me. In addition, almost every use of fennel is in seed form. It is highly aromatic and has a strong flavor. But who wants to crunch into seeds when eating sausage, of all things? The textures just don’t go together. It is rare to find anyone cooking with fennel powder because it is hard to find and expensive as well. The leaves of the plant are very similar to dill (long, thin, and wispy). Used like dill, it can be a great garnish, adding aroma and some flavor. But the seed? Disgusting.
If you have never tried the seed, don’t just take my word for it. Dump a few in your mouth and then let me know what you think (insert evil laugh here).
If you run a pizza joint, stop putting this nasty seed in your pizza, and refuse to buy your sausage from anyone who uses it.
If you are a cook and can convince me you have a great use for the fennel seed, I’d love to hear it. Otherwise, relegate this plant to where grows: on roadsides.