I love how my nose is just as strong as an old photograph. It can bring me back in time just as easily as holding a picture in my hand. Taste is the same way. It can transport you to another time, sometimes without any forewarning at all. Perhaps you could even call it a gift for this same reason. My father-in-law can’t smell. I am not quite sure what happened that caused this tragedy but at least he hasn’t lost his taste. I can’t even for a moment imagine not being able to take a whiff of fresh ginger cookies from the oven, or garlic from a batch of just blended pesto.
There are distinct flavors that trigger the past more so than others. Garlic and basil do this to me frequently. As do foods that resemble the taste of licorice, like fennel or anise, which are especially poignant. I remember the first time I tasted my grandmother’s biscotti. I recall sitting at the table, set for eight. Empty wine glasses, rumpled linen napkins, and good china scattered across the table. My brother and cousin were out for a walk around the block, digesting the homemade pasta from our second course. We had started with antipasto, cheese, and olives followed by homemade ravioli topped with my grandmother’s special sauce. Then came the actual meal itself. Typically a roast, mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts, jello salad, and buttermilk rolls, the flaky ones from the supermarket that look like flower petals as you peel back the sides. Finally, the best part—dessert. By then, it was almost too late. The ravioli had set in and my pants were unbuttoned – if only I had taken that walk earlier. However, that wasn’t going to stop me. A couple shortbread cookies, my favorite, and then a biscotti, my grandmother’s specialty. I picked up the wedge-shaped cookie, which my grandmother pronounced “bis-co-ti”, instead of “bis-cot-ti”, the difference is the annunciation of the “o” which was likely from her Genovese accent. Anyway, I picked up the cookie and took a bite, instantly overwhelmed by the anise seeds, licorice in-taste, laced through the cookie which I ate in three, maybe four bites as crumbs tumbled down my chin onto the tablecloth.
Years later, I spent the day interviewing for graduate school in a Portland. From Portland, we trekked to Yakima, exhausted and overwhelmed from the interviews. All in one long weekend, because it was Easter and it was my in-laws turn to host. For some reason, my husband and I had decided to cook Easter dinner for my in-laws, including extended family. “What were we thinking?” was all I could muster as drove through the evening. It wasn’t just any old dinner – it was a holiday, something that everyone would remember, especially if it was a disaster, as I worried it may be. We planned to cook two pork loins with fennel stuffing and a side of Ina Garten’s decadent cauliflower gratin. Fast-forward 24 hours and we were seated at the table, anticipating the first bite. My husband’s family was watching eagerly as my he sliced the pork. My father-in-law was at the head of the table, near the window overlooking the flower garden that would be filled with deep red peonies a few weeks later. He started with a short prayer before breaking into the feast. I remember starting to pray myself, at that same moment, that the food would taste as good as it looked. And in the end, the stuffed roast was magnificent to the say the least. I took one bite of the moist pork, and then the next bite, shuffling the stuffing onto my fork and into my mouth. The bread cubes moist with juices from the pork, and a hint of licorice taste from the caramelized fennel engulfing my taste buds.
Six years later and it is present day. It was a long week at work and I was feeling exhausted. But for some reason, I decided to try a new recipe. I opened up a crisp new cookbook, The Food Lovers’ Cleanse, by the lovely Sara Dickerman, and flipped through the dozens of pages flagged with sticky notes. I finally arrived at the one I was looking for: Saucy Braised Chicken Thighs with Fennel and Lemon. I chose this one, in particular, because of the ease of the recipe and the mouthwatering photograph which was difficult to ignore. A few moments later I dove in. I sautéed the fennel wedges in olive oil in my cast iron skillet until they were golden brown and crispy in places, added a pinch of salt, and toasted some fennel seeds. After removing the fennel pieces to rest, I cooked the chicken in the skillet with garlic and then returned the fennel wedges and seeds to the skillet with some chicken broth. I left out the lemon which didn’t seem to impact the overall end product, but imagine it would be worthwhile to add in. I allowed the stock to come to a boil and then transferred the skillet to the oven until the chicken was cooked through. When I pulled the skillet from the oven, the juices had thickened into a fragrant sauce and the fennel was beautifully glazed. I sprinkled some chopped parsley from the garden on top and served the dish on its own – no sides necessary.
I took a bite of the chicken and then the fennel and put my fork down, proclaiming to my husband that this was one of the best meals I’ve had. There are only a handful of meals that have allowed me to make such a statement. I think it’s the mere simplicity of ingredients in this meal combined with the intense flavor from the fennel and juices from the chicken that make it stand out. The photograph in Sara’s book did not lie – this meal was absolutely mouthwatering. Within two bites of the meal, I had texted both my mother and brother with the recipe, a photo and the words, “You must make this, pronto.” While the recipe was new to me, the hint of licorice from the fennel was very familiar and brought me back to moments in time when I could recall eating something with a similar taste, and the memories associated with that time.
With that being said, I hope you make this recipe. I truly believe it would be a mistake if you didn’t. I’ve included the recipe below, slightly modified from Sara’s in the The Food Lovers’ Cleanse.
Saucy Braised Chicken Thighs with Fennel and Lemon
1 ½ lbs organic, boneless chicken thighs (about 4-5)
Fine sea salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsp olive oil, plus more if needed
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed, cut into wedges
2 tsp fennel seeds
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth (or homemade)
1 lemon, thinly sliced crosswise (optional)
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
Preheat the oven to 425° F.
Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat in a large cast iron skillet. Add half the fennel wedges and cook for about 3 minutes until browned on one side. Using tongs, flip the wedges and add a pinch of salt. Cook for 2 more minutes and remove from the pan and set aside on a plate. Add a bit more oil, if needed, and repeat to cook the remaining fennel. Remove the fennel to the plate, and add the fennel seeds to toast for about a minute until fragrant. Set aside.
Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Pat the chicken thighs dry with a paper towel and add the chicken to the pan in a single layer. Cook for about 4 minutes, until browned. Then, turn the chicken over using tongs and add the garlic slices between the chicken pieces. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the stock, toasted fennel seeds, fennel wedges, and lemon (if using). Nestle the wedges around the chicken. When the stock comes to a boil, transfer the skillet to the oven. Cook for about 20-25 minutes until the chicken is cooked through and the juices have thickened. Top with parsley and serve.