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Tomato-Braised Fennel with Couscous (or, the Next Big Thing)

[San Francisco, sky, 2013.]

Perhaps one of the reasons I didn’t completely lose my mind — admittedly barring a few melt downs here (in Casa) and there (in SF) — at the prospect of moving to Morocco was the knowlege that I would be returning to my beloved California for an extended stay after about a month. I am moving/have moved to Morocco, yes, and in fact most of my stuff is there or en route, which means I won’t be seeing it again before the end of the year (as I’ve mentioned before: sigh), but the knowledge that I’d have a brief reprieve to catch my breath and get my bearings back in the golden state has served to temper some of the anxiety this move has wrought. And thank goodness for it.

I mentioned to a friend recently that 2013 is turning out to be one of the most interesting, exciting, and change-filled years of my life. Scratch that, it is in fact the most, the biggest, hands down. Going naively off to college in 1996 was pretty intense, sure, but really it was nothing compared to these past seven months. As if writing a cookbook, a long-held dream of mine, wasn’t enough of a mind-boggle, I also prepared to move (and subsequently mostly moved) to a country and continent I’d never set foot upon in my life. Add to that one last detail that trumps all the others: the expansion of our wee family in (cross-fingers) early October and well, some days I’m content just to think about what to make for dinner tonight rather than all the rest of it.

I haven’t written much (at all) about this Next Big Thing, mostly because there’s been so much else going on and also, oh!, I’ve been plagued by weird superstitions and just feeling quiet about it in general. Anyway, this is mostly a food blog and I use it to chronicle my ongoing experiments in the kitchen above all else, right? And, I just sort-of moved to Morocco! And started a new job! And finished up copy edits for my cookbook! Can it be true there is yet another major life event also happening?? Good grief. But now that we are only two months away from bringing a new and tiny human into this spinning world it’s hard to not mention it since, err, it’s getting pretty obvious (sh*t’s gettin’ real, in other words). And everything has already changed, the most immediate one being that I will get another Indian Summer in Northern California.

A few years ago at the holidays my brother and I got into one of those silly discussions about what we might name our hypothetical children. You know the ones — you’re slightly high on coffee, the house is warm and you’re sitting around the kitchen table watching rain fall softly in the backyard with a belly full of pancakes and scrambled eggs. Thus when he threw out the foolish ‘Phrenolope’ (a riff on ‘Penelope’, perhaps? Or just a holdover from jet-lag?) I went ahead and took it a step further to ‘Fennel’ which, in the mood we were in, seemed exactly right. “If I ever have a girl I will name her ‘Fennel’!” I announced. And lo, that name stuck all through my dreamings about ‘what-ifs’ and ‘some days’ despite its utter impracticality.

So it made sense when, this May, we found out that we are (I am?) baking up our own girl-child (!!!) I obviously had my name for her already picked out. Who else could she be but Fennel? (DW, king of nicknames, calls her ‘Fenny’, which I quite like as well.) When I googled to remind myself that we probably shouldn’t actually name her Fennel, I learned that the Greek name for fennel is marathon (μάραθον) or marathos (μάραθος),[3] and the place of the famous battle of Marathon and the subsequent sports event Marathon (Μαραθών), literally means a plain with fennels. Running-related??? Oh, it does seem a sign.

Yet no: I cannot name our daughter Fennel, though Fennel she may be in my mind and heart. I cannot sentence her to an early childhood of playground teasing and teachers frowning over the attendance list when they come to her name. But I can cook fennel for dinner in small tribute, and I can share that recipe with you. (I’ll save ‘Fennel’ for her special pet name.)

It’s a simple one: fennel braised with tomatoes and onions and white wine and thyme until the vegetables get slippery and soft and melting. The whole mess is served, in a nod to our soon-to-be permanent home’s hallmark, on a bed of vegetable broth-infused couscous. I throw in some chickpeas for heft and a bit of fresh parsley to finish, but it’s one-pot meal, fairly quick and easy to put together. This is true comfort food, silky and slightly sweet, and I would even go far as to claim it is worth making when fennel isn’t quite in season (but still available at the grocery store).

I leave for California tomorrow morning for some months and I expect to fully dive back into all the lovely things I’ve so missed while living in Morocco: burritos being no. 1; also, lots of whole wheat pasta with Clover (oh Clover!) butter and parmesan cheese from Marin Cheese Company with lots of sauteed spinach on the side, tofu-noodle stir-fries (organic tofu, please don’t make me leave you …), (vegetarian) baked beans on whole grain toast or a baked potato, miso soup, granola with almond milk and fruit, bagels with cream cheese, ice cream made from good, simple, real ingredients, easy access to Whole Foods and its assorted delicacies (almond milk! organic oats! lots of interesting grains! avocados!), coffee from a coffee shop rather than made on my stove, with the option of half and half if I so choose. Lots of my favorite foods to tide me through these next weeks. Not to mention: yoga classes, lap swimming, walking in the cool and silent woods, spending hours by the Pacific Ocean, walk/runs in Golden Gate Park, the public library, friends nearby, everything within walking distance again etc., etc., ETC.

On the other hand, we’ve been settling into a bit of a routine here in Morocco, making friends, enjoying that lovely and spacious kitchen, and starting to explore our new city — and so a part of me is loathe to leave for four months. Oh life! You tricky thing! At least there will be lots of delicious things to eat to ease me through this strange in-between period.

After the first few months — which coincidentally coincided with an intense flurry of recipe-testing for the cookbook — when I felt rather off my usual feed (I still can’t really get back to roasted cauliflower, which ‘before’ was one of my most favorite things) I have happily been able to eat mostly everything my heart desires. Here in Morocco I’ve, as mentioned, overloaded on vegetables because I love vegetables and also because there are not a ton of quick and easy vegetarian protein options besides eggs and beans. Thus I wanted to supplement the lentils and beans and rice type offerings with delicious and nourishing accompaniments. Back in San Francisco, however, I plan to stuff myself with as much sharp cheddar cheese, vegetarian sushi, breakfast enchiladas, Little Star Pizza, and Bi-Rite creamery ice cream as I possibly can (yes, and vegetables too; I won’t go completely off the wagon. Chard, I miss you so!).

This time in the Bay Area will be bittersweet as I know I will be leaving again all too soon and I will sorely miss my husband who I won’t see until late September. Yet it’s also a special time — a stolen season, one more sweet, blue October in California, the last of my ‘single’ days for real — and I aim to make the most of it. I want to drink tons of Hardcore Espresso and coffees at Toby’s, load up on cinnamon cookies at the Sebastopol Cookie Company, have brunch at the Station House (and maybe even a beer later this fall), eat all the Screamin’ Mimi’s Ice Cream I can stand, make plans for lunch at the Willowwood and a late breakfast at Howard’s. In short, I want to overdose on everything I love about life in NorCal.

Meanwhile, I have lots on my mind to occupy me too. The decision to embark upon parenthood is a big one — so big, in fact, that I doubt I have even a minute comprehension of how exactly my life will change and expand. Some late nights I am seized with anxiety, fretting over if I will be a ‘good’ mother (define ‘good’!); if I will be too hover-y (debatable); if I will worry too much (obviously); if I will be too impatient and/or selfish or tired (answer: yes of course, though hopefully not too terribly often); not to mention the reality of her first 3 1/2 years of life being spent in another country far from the comforting embrace of the United States health care system and all the assorted conveniences that come with living in America and that I’ve had to alter my previously cherished vision of raising my kid/s in California … well, it doesn’t make for the best rest. Good practice, though, right? The world today is so different from the one in which I grew up: it feels much more vast and challenging and scary. My impulse is to tuck away into the wilds of the redwood forests of Northern California and look to the stars and rivers for guidance. But alas, that’s not very practical (nor is it wise). As in so many things I will have to rely upon faith and common sense that things will turn out. And I will plot and plan against the day when my kid can come home to claim her birthright and hope that it won’t take too awfully long.

After all, aside from my real and imagined worries, there is so much to look forward to — especially concerning the food aspect. Getting to introduce a new little person to wonderful things like fresh-baked bread, corn on the cob, heirloom tomatoes in season, kale, quinoa, blueberries eaten just as they’re picked and strawberries warm from the sun, chocolate cake … add to that the many (many, I hope) camping and hiking trips we will take as she gets older (and maybe even when she’s still wee), swimming adventures, trips to the beach, dog (!) companions, and exploring the plethora of beautiful places on this great earth together … well, it’s all quite exciting. (And it’s not like I’m doing this alone — I have the best team mate anyone could ask for.)

Anyway, I have a little time yet to wrap my mind around it all. In the meantime, as always, I cook. I can’t say I’ve had any particular ‘cravings’ per se, but I have certainly been drawn a bit more toward sweets than usual (I tend to bake a lot but to give most of it away. Lately I can’t seem to get enough of lemon cake or pain au chocolats. Fortunately I’ll soon be back to my regular exercise routine when I’m Stateside.). Yet another reason I’ve been countering the treats with lots of vegetables; I think/hope I’ve found a decent balance. (Also: this seems to be the year of ‘when it rains it pours’ for me. Good thing I like rain.)

Here’s to the next big thing …

[print_this] Tomato-Braised Fennel with Couscous, adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy via A Sweet Spoonful

Couscous can be prepared simply from a package or you may buy it in bulk; if you go the unflavored route, stir in 1 or so teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper to the cooking water when preparing it. (To add a bit more flavor, use vegetable stock in place of the water.) Serve the final dish with a salad or lemon-spiked sauteed green beans, as I did, because I don’t think you can ever have too many vegetables. Another time, swap quinoa, barley, or farro — as Megan suggests — for the couscous.

Makes 4 servings

2 large fennel bulbs
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 large tomato, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons capers
1 cup vegetable stock (I used water)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon salt
1+ teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 to 2 cups chickpeas, from a can or prepared from dried

Trim off the stalks and greens from the fennel bulbs. If the outer leaves of the bulbs look scarred, take a slice off the base and loosen them and set them aside for another use or discard. Halve each bulb lengthwise and cut the halves into wedges about 1-2 inches thick (thinner if you like).

Heat the olive oil in a wide frying pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion and thyme and oregano and cook until the onions soften, about 7-10 minutes. Add the fennel wedges and cook them until golden, turning them and the onions occasionally. Once they are well colored, chopped tomato, stir in the tomato paste, and add the stock or water, the wine, 1 teaspoon salt, parsley, and the pepper. Scrape the pan to release the juices, stir in the chickpeas, then cover and simmer until the fennel is tender, about 15-20 minutes.

Serve generous portions of the braised fennel and vegetables over steamed couscous.



  1. I’m so delighted for you–and what a wonderful mother you already are with your tender heart and generous spirit. Enjoy your respite back home. I’m looking forward to trying this recipe and future Morocco inspired ones.

  2. Oh, I have just now been able to read this, having ‘kept unread’ for several days. Congratulations!!! What a wonderful thing to look forward to – a new little one. And such change has this year been for you! I admire your bravery – of everything you are doing. Someday you will look back on this year and laugh. :)

    I will have to try the meal sometime; it looks amazing. My husband and I ate at a Turkish restaurant the other night – I had slow-roasted lamb with grilled veggies. Oh, it was very good, and for some reason this recipe reminded me of that.

  3. Wow, Nicole! What a surprise of the best order! There is no doubt that you and your sweet husband will be awesome parents. A life, rich in every way, is on the horizon for the little one. I’m looking forward to tagging along. Take care!

  4. Congratulations! Such exciting news. As if your life hasn’t been busy enough, but I’m sure you’ll balance everything out. Safe travels.

  5. Congratulations! Such wonderful news! You are the perfect person to bring this gal, “Fenny”, into this richly layered, wondrous world. What a great adventure. She’s a lucky gal! Take care and enjoy your NorCal reunion. : ) Hugs–

  6. Nicole! God, you’re not kidding about next big thing(s)! I’m happy to read this, yes, even though it’s a ‘food blog’. Sending so many good vibes your way. –Sarah

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