The Simple Ingredient Ina Garten Uses To Upgrade Her French Onion Soup

Celebrity chef Ina Garten
Celebrity chef Ina Garten - Noam Galai/Getty Images

When it comes to comfort food, Ina Garten has a real flair for adding special ingredients to beloved classic dishes. For instance, the celebrity chef and author recommends using pancetta as a secret ingredient for roasted potatoes to elevate the flavor of the side dish. Her take on French onion soup is similarly tweaked, although Garten's preparation features a slightly uncommon vegetable as opposed to cured meat. Along with the typical ingredients like onions, French bread, and Gruyère cheese, the Barefoot Contessa's soup also includes fennel.

Fennel's herbaceous, licorice-like taste is the perfect addition to French onion soup, which is known for its decadent savory flavors. Garten cooks the onion and fennel in butter and oil to perfectly brown the vegetables before incorporating the rest of the ingredients, which include beef broth, assorted seasonings, and three types of alcohol. While it is known for having powerfully sharp, almost peppery notes, how you use the vegetable in your cooking can impact just how potent it is. In Garten's rendition, fennel adds just the right touch of complexity to a hearty and delicious soup.

Read more: 11 Of The Best Cooking Tips From Bobby Flay

Fennel Is An Impactful Flavor Enhancer

Person cutting fennel
Person cutting fennel - zi3000/Shutterstock

While somewhat reminiscent of an onion in appearance, fennel is in a class of its own. One of the great things about this vegetable is that every part of it is edible, including the bulb, roots, and seeds. Keep in mind that Ina Garten calls for removal of the tops (meaning the stalks and fronds) and cores (the interior section that holds the different layers together) of the vegetable. Removing the stalks and fronds first is typically considered the best way to cut fennel when it comes to efficiency and convenience.

When eaten raw, such as in a salad, the subtly spicy flavors in fennel are a lot more powerful. The licorice flavor is tempered a bit when it's cooked, which helps it blend in with the other ingredients in Garten's version, such as the onions and beef broth. Meanwhile, the notes of anise are perfect for adding a bit of vegetal sweetness and warmth to the preparation, which is ideal for cutting through some of the richness commonly associated with French onion soup. When it comes to the dry white wine in Garten's dish, the acidity of the wine and the sharpness of the fennel are wonderful complements. The vegetable also offers a nice contrast to the subtly sweet brandy and the almond-tinged notes of the sherry.

Ina Garten Is A Real Fan Of Fennel

Person shopping for fennel
Person shopping for fennel - Sabino Parente/Shutterstock

Beyond French onion soup, fennel makes frequent appearances in Ina Garten's culinary playbook. Her creamy potato fennel soup, which she's posted about on Instagram, features a similar assortment of ingredients as compared to her French onion riff. She even tops the fennel-infused potage with goat cheese and croutons to keep the dish from being too one-note when it comes to texture. If you're seeking other dishes that feature the flavor of fennel prominently, the Barefoot Contessa has you covered.

Garten also pairs pork loin with fennel (along with onions, potatoes, and carrots) and even worked the diced bulbs into a swordfish Provencal she made with Jennifer Garner on an episode of "Barefoot Contessa: Cook Like a Pro." The aroma of the fennel cooking together with tomatoes and bell peppers to make a thick, vibrant sauce prompted the actress to excitedly comment, "The fennel's so nice in this dish!" As with her French onion soup, the vegetable's hint of anise works to elevate the sauce and its allium-rich base. When it comes to appetizers, Garten incorporates fennel with figs -- playing off its inherent sweetness -- to make caponata, an eggplant-based salad hailing from Sicily. Other of the culinary personality's dishes pair fennel with steak, potato gratin, pasta, and more.

If you hope to have as much success with the vegetable as Garten, quality is key. In this case, having a foolproof guide for buying fennel can help with selecting the perfect vegetable for dinner.

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