An Appetizer for Spring: Fried Angelica Sheaths

angelica pods on the plantWhile browsing in Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed yesterday, I came upon a description of two angelica species, Angelica archangelica and A. sylvestris: “Both these angelicas grow wild near abandoned ruins and damp places. In February the Salentines [the people of the Salerno, the heel of the Italian boot] go feverishly in search of them. This is the moment when the incipient flower-heads are still enclosed in their sheaths right up against the greenish-purple stem. You cut these sheaths with a knife.”

Ah, I though, here is my reward for letting angelica—the garden variety, A. archangelica—take over an entire flower bed. I headed straight to the garden to cut some of the little sheaths. According to Patience, I could boil or grill them and serve them with olive oil and a little wine vinegar, or I could boil, flour, and fry them. The sheaths would taste strong and bitter, I knew, although Patience described them as “aromatic and faintly sweet.” British by birth, she had adopted Italian tastes; she seemed to truly like bitter weeds. I might prefer the bitterness softened with grease and starch. So I decided to fry my sheaths.

angelica pods before blanchingThe sheaths came in various sizes. I tore into some of the large ones because I could feel bits of hard stalk inside. Within each large sheath I found a smaller one, or, usually, two. Sometimes the larger of the two contained two more little sheaths. The soft green pouches within pouches reminded me of Matryoshka dolls, or of the Cat in the Hat, with all the little and littler cats hidden beneath his topper.

A tender green flower-head peeked out from one slightly open sheath, looking like a strangely delicate broccoli floret. Perhaps this sheath was past its prime? I decided to use it anyway.

To make zavirne fritte, you boil the sheaths “for a few minutes,” instructed Patience. I hurried to put a pot of salted water on to boil, because the cut edges of the angelica had begun browning immediately after harvest. I boiled the sheaths vigorously for five minutes. This was perhaps a bit too long; one or two began to fall apart, though the open sheath turned out fine. Next time I’ll give them just three to four minutes.

I drained off the now vivid-green water, covered the sheaths with cold water, and let them sit in the water for an hour, as Patience instructed. The soaking, I supposed, would moderate their bitterness.

blanched angelica podsAfter an hour had passed, I drained the sheaths and dried them on a towel. I rolled them first in beaten egg and then in salted and peppered flour before frying them in hot oil until the coating turned golden.

We ate the fried sheaths immediately, while I finished cooking dinner. This was the right thing to do, because zavirne fritte are best hot; the warm, crisp coating counteracts the bitterness.

cooked angelica podsAngelica sheaths are bitter, more bitter than radicchio, I’d say, though less so than dandelions. The incipient flower-heads inside are tender and sweetly perfumed in the odd, medicinal way of angelica—rather like licorice, rather like anise, but at the same time wholly different from both. To know this flavor you must try angelica candy or liqueur, if not zavirne fritte.

Robert dislikes the flavor of angelica; it reminds him of soap. (Soapmakers take note: The scent of angelica would be appealing in your products.) Maybe the flavor will grow on him, if he lets it. But eating angelica is lovely thing to try even if you do it just once. You will no doubt marvel at the taste, and, if you believe the old-time herbalists, you will leave the table fortified against witches, evil spirits, and the plague.

 

To Candy Angelica

Very old preserving books always include candied angelica, and I wanted to continue this tradition in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves. I ended up leaving out this herb, though, because I’d never managed to grow it. In fact, I didn’t even know what it tasted like. But last year, luckily, I found a start at Nichols (a local seed company, in Albany, Oregon, and one of my favorites) and the plant has happily sprung back despite the extreme cold of December. So over the past week, for the first time, I have candied angelica.

Angelica is a member of the genus Umbelliferae, which provides an awesome assortment of flavors for the kitchen (other members include parsley, carrot, parsnip, fennel, anise, coriander, celery, dill, cumin, lovage, and caraway). Like many of its cousins, angelica is biennial; the seeds sprout soon after they’re dropped in the summer, and then the little plant overwinters before sending up tall seed stalks the following summer. (The reasons I and other gardeners have had trouble growing angelica from seed, apparently, are that the seeds need light to germinate and that they lose their viability quickly.) Angelica archangelica, the European variety traditionally used in cooking, can wave its umbels as high as six feet in the air. Tasting the bitter leaves might make you avoid this plant as potentially poisonous, and in fact the herb has been used more as medicine than as food. The leaves, seeds, stems, and roots of angelica species have all served as remedies for various complaints, especially digestive and bronchial problems. In the kitchen, the leaves have been used for tea, the roots and seeds have flavored wine and liqueurs, the ground dried root has been added to baked goods, and the fresh leaves have flavored salads, soups, stews, custards, ice cream, and other desserts. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers angelica safe for use as food.

Many old recipes specify that angelica should be cut in April for candying. Early May should be fine, too, provided the stems are still green, not purplish (although you shouldn’t wait until the plant blooms, which according to European tradition happens on May 8, the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel). Use only thick stems, and cut away the leaves and leaf stems.

I developed my candying method from several old, slow recipes, although quicker methods might work as well. Here’s what I did:

Candied Angelica

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
½ pound thick green angelica stems, cut into 3- to 8-inch lengths
Extra-fine sugar, for dusting

Bring the sugar and water to a boil, stirring. Remove the pan from the heat.

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add the angelica stems. Over medium-high heat, cook the stems for 4 to 6 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a fork. Their sharp, bitter aroma will fill the air. Drain the stems, rinse them in cold water, and drain them again. Peel off the thin skin. A vegetable peeler may help, but most of the skin should rub off easily with your fingers. Put the stems into a bowl, pour the syrup over them, and weight them with a small plate.

The next day, drain off the syrup into a saucepan. Boil it until it has thickened a bit (to about 225 degrees F), and pour it over the angelica. Repeat this process the next day, and again the day after. At this point the stems should appear partially translucent.

drying angelica
 

On the following day, pour off the syrup again, and boil it to the thread stage (230 degrees F). Add the angelica stems, and bring the syrup back to the thread stage. Drain the stems in a colander, and then place them on a rack or screen in a warm place until they are dry to the touch (a food dryer or a convection oven set on very low heat will speed the drying).Dust the dried stems with sugar, and store them in an airtight container.

candied angelica

 

Before you store your angelica, of course, you’ll want to taste it and consider how to use it. The flavor reminds me of horehound, but others compare it to licorice. My husband says it’s not like either; he detects roses and grass. Angelica’s bitterness should still be apparent in the candied stems, but it should be balanced by the sweetness of the sugar.

Cookbooks with recipes for candied angelica usually mention its use in or on cakes. But what sorts of cakes? I checked at least a dozen cookbooks that I thought might answer this question, but none did. I think I’ll try my candied angelica in gingerbread, biscotti, or fruit cake. I’ll also eat it on its own now and then, to experience its strange, strong flavor again.

Note: Several species of angelica are native to North America. They can presumably be used in the same ways as Angelica archangelica, but before you gather any wild angelica make sure you can tell it from poisonous water hemlock, Cicuta maculata.

Candied Fennel Cores

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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 stores 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 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.