About 10 years ago, I planted a few bulbs of fennel in my front flower bed. I plopped them in the ground on a whim, and I've been reaping the benefits ever since. Not only do I enjoy having fresh fennel leaves — and, when I feel like digging, fennel bulbs and stalks — right outside my front door, but the plant is a natural host for parsleyworms, the caterpillars that become black swallowtail butterflies.
This month, I've been harvesting fennel for a variety of cocktails. While the licorice-tasting Mediterranean herb is probably best known to mixologists as the root flavor of absinthe, I prefer to use it to spice up more ordinary spirits. It adds a nuance that, like the cider cocktails I wrote about a few weeks ago, give a nod to the changing seasons.
As we've hovered between summer and fall, with the October temperatures swinging from the mid-90s down to the upper 40s this week, I've made the most of Mother Nature's mood swings by mixing up a drink called the Thistle in the Kiss, which I found on Food & Wine's website. The cocktail, which originated in a Chicago restaurant, combines one-and-a-half ounces vodka, three-quarters of an ounce fresh lime juice, three-quarters of an ounce of fennel syrup (made by steeping fennel bulbs in hot water, then discarding the herb and adding sugar to create simple syrup), and half an ounce of Suze.
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Shake the ingredients and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass and garnish with a few basil leaves. The fennel-basil combo makes it the perfect goodbye-summer-hello-autumn cocktail. I found a similar drink, the Fennel Lemon Crunch, on Organic Authority — just use lemon juice instead of lime, and, if it's one of those warmer fall days, add a few slices of cucumber.
I haven't tried this yet, but you can also make your own vodka apertifs by infusing vodka with a blend of fennel leaves and seeds. Combine 16 ounces of your favorite vodka with a quarter cup of chopped fennel leaves and a tablespoon of fennel seeds, then seal in an airtight container and store it in a cool, dark place for six days. Strain the vodka, then mix it with 12 ounces of simple syrup and store it in the refrigerator. Serve the concoction in shot glasses.
Speaking of apertifs, I have combined fennel fronds with Campari to great effect. Cure, a cocktail bar located in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans, sold me on their blend of Campari, sparkling wine, and muddled lemon and fennel during a Big Easy visit a few years ago. I just became reacquainted with the recipe when I found it online. It's a medicinal-tasting drink, which is my favorite kind of cocktail. It's made to be sipped, not slugged, so proceed with care.
Cappelletti, Campari's less expensive cousin, is a favorite liquor at my house, so I was thrilled to discover the recipe for the Marathon Afternoon on HGTV.com. The cocktail actually hails from Chai Pani, a hipster Indian restaurant in Atlanta, but is rooted in Marathon, Greece — the site where the outnumbered Athenian army beat back the Persians back in 490 BC. In ancient Greek, the name Marathon actually means "a place full of fennels" — and Marathon was so-called because of the riot of fennel plants that grew in the area. Anyway, back to the drink: First, make a fennel simple syrup, using fronds, stems, and two teaspoons of fennel seeds. Steep the herbs and seeds in water, then add an equal amount of sugar, stir until dissolved, let sit for five minutes, then strain. Combine half an ounce syrup with one ounce Cappelletti and one ounce fresh lemon juice, then top with soda, a tiny pinch of salt, and a fennel frond.
And at the Splendid Table, I found Maggie Hoffman's quite-splendid-indeed recipe for the Gin Rocket. To make this thirst-quenching, herbaceous drink, use a vegetable peeler (or a mandoline if you're stone-cold sober) to thinly slice a quarter cup of fennel bulb. Place the fennel slices in a cocktail shaker, and add a quarter cup arugula leaves, a pinch of fennel fronds, three-quarters ounce fresh lime juice, and three-quarters ounce plain simple syrup. Muddle, then add two ounces of gin and ice, and shake with vigor. Strain the drink into a chilled coupe glass (a champagne glass or even a lowball will do), then garnish with a lime wheel, an arugula leaf, or a fennel frond — or, if you feel particularly bountiful, use all three.