Four consecutive days of below-freezing temperatures put an end to the remains of my vegetable garden. As in many years past, I was late in digging carrots and setting up plastic tents over the greens (which might actually have survived if I’d included an electric heater, set on high). After three days of bitter cold I dug up the carrot bed, in frozen chunks six inches deep, and set the blocks in the garage to thaw. I also dug up two enormous bulbs of Florence fennel, the kind sold in West Coast supermarkets as anise (which it isn’t) or finocchio (Italian for “fennel”). The bulbs were frozen through.
I set the fennel in a big bowl on the kitchen counter for a day and a half, until the bulbs had thawed enough to handle. Then I cut away the outer layers, which had browned a bit. Most of the rest became, with the addition of onion, potato, chicken stock, and sour cream, a big pot of pureed fennel soup. Delicious! It was the best thing I’d ever made with fennel—until two days later.
I had saved the fennel cores. These were hard, solid, and white, like cabbage cores. The cores of Florence fennel are included in many Italian recipes, although they take longer to soften than the outer layers; I could certainly have cooked them in the soup. But I had been reading Tim Richardson’s Sweets, a wonderfully entertaining yet scholarly history of candy. Tim had made me think how medieval my Joy of Jams was. All those fruit pastes and syrups started with recipes the Arabs developed, or borrowed from the Persians. These treats became popular throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. My book even includes some recipes for crystallized fruits, which are just preserves with the syrup drained off. To a large extent, The Joy of Jams is about medieval confectionery.
But I’d left out candied vegetables. “All kinds of roots and stalks were being candied in England by the sixteenth century,” according to Tim. They included parsley roots, angelica stalks, lettuce stalks, and stranger foods like sea holly, borage, and bugloss. They also included fennel roots.
My fennel had tough, rough, dirty roots, and I didn’t want to waste my time on them. But the cores seemed to hold some promise. So I made a small batch of . . .
Candied Fennel Cores
5 ounces Florence fennel cores, cut into 3/8-inch cubes
1 cup water (plus more for cooking the fennel)
2/3 cup sugar
Pinch of cream of tartar
Put the fennel cubes into a saucepan with enough water to cover them. Simmer them for about 20 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a fork. Drain them.
Combine the 1 cup water, the 2/3 cup sugar, and the cream of tartar in a saucepan, and heat the mixture gently until the sugar dissolves. Bring the syrup to a boil, and continue boiling it until it is reduced by about one-third. Add the fennel, and bring the mixture to a full boil. Remove the pan from the heat. Let it stand at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.
Return the pan to the stove. Simmer the fennel in the syrup for about 25 minutes, until the cubes are partially translucent and the syrup reaches thread stage (230 degrees F.).
Remove the pan from the heat. Let the fennel cubes rest in the syrup at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.
Drain the fennel cubes. Set them to dry in a warm place until they are no longer sticky. I used a food dehydrator, but you could instead use a very low oven or even the top of a woodstove.
The finished candies ranged in color from pale gold to amber. They were firm but not tough and had a mild but appealing fennel flavor. If you wanted to intensify the flavor, you could add a few fennel seeds to the syrup.
I thought about including the candied fennel cubes on a Christmas dessert platter, alongside my candied Asian pears, or in a Christmas pudding, but I didn’t hide them away fast enough. They got eaten almost immediately. I must admit that I got my share.