You know what to do with carrots, and even your kids are fans of kale. But, fennel? For those of you new to this frilly frond, let us take a moment to orient you. Once you learn how versatile fennel is, you’ll be able to incorporate it into your weekly meals and consider the vegetable an ally that you’re excited about instead of a bulb that you dread.
All parts of the fennel plant, root to stem to flower, are edible. The fennel that ends up in your CSA box or market haul has three main components, all delicious: bulb, stalks, and feathery fronds. Fennel is related to the parsley (and carrot) family, and like the herb, adding fennel to any dish, raw or cooked, will help brighten up the dish and give it a fresh, herby flavor. When raw, fennel has a slight anise flavor. And for all the licorice haters out there, you may think that your relationship with fennel stops at this sentence. But when cooked, fennel’s flavor mellows out, sweetens, and softens. Fennel is a common ingredient in Italian and French food, and when sauteed with onions, garlic, and maybe peppers or celery, fennel turns sweet and silky, adding to a flavor foundation worth building upon.
At Vrdnt, fennel usually makes its appearance in early fall, then takes a break during the coldest days, and makes a second and short debut in the spring, before the temperature topple 100. In the cooler fall and late winter months, fennel works beautifully with Texas citrus like grapefruit and blood oranges, and in the spring, fennel provides the refreshing crunch you need to brighten up a roasted beet salad, a placeholder for cucumbers and basil, both, before they make their debut.
To enjoy fennel raw, slice the bulb very thinly using a sharp knife or mandolin. If you’re not using the sliced fennel right away, store it in the fridge in a closed container, submerged in water (with a squeeze of lemon). This will help keep the fennel crispy and crunchy. Shaved fennel is a wonderful anchor to any shaved salad or slaw. Add thinly sliced cabbage, radishes, and fresh herbs for a riff on coleslaw. Or, slice sweet bell peppers and cucumbers, and add shaved fennel and a creamy dressing for another take. My farmer friend, Katherine, once made a fennel salad with apples and a remoulade that is burned in my memory. Roasted beets, fennel, avocado, and sliced grapefruit is a surprisingly classic flavor combo. If you’re new to eating fennel this way, the trick really is in the slicing. It’s got to be thin. Sprinkle raw fennel fronds on top of anything as a replacement for fresh dill, parsley, or cilantro when it’s all you’ve got. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on some fennel flowers, these too make wonderful, grassy garnishes.
Cooked fennel (and parmesan and good olive oil) may just be the secret ingredient that makes Italian food so addictive. Dice fennel bulbs and saute with onions and garlic the next time you’re making a soup or braise, or quarter the whole bulb and simply roast with a tray of whatever root veggies need some attention. Serve roasted fennel on its own, or while warm from the oven, toss with a simple vinaigrette to adorn a salad. Or, maybe you’ll cut the bulb into thin strings, like a half-moon onion, and add it to your next stir fry or fajita spread. I know that dicing the oddly folded bulb may not be as intuitive as chopping carrot. Here is a pretty good youtube video explaining an easy way to do the deed. One of the best parts about slowly cooked fennel is how silky and soft the caramelized vegetable becomes. Given time, it will practically melt into whatever you're cooking (like the pasta dish below), hiding its rich flavor into something that simply tastes deep, warm, and sweet. In other words, don’t worry too much about how you dice the veggie. Removing the tough core is a good idea, but even this part is technically edible.
Fennel fronds should be treated just like any other fresh herb. Finely dice them to top cooked dishes or salads, or puree them up into your next batch of pesto or pistou. A trick I learned while living in Israel, I often use my french press to make pots of fennel tea, lightly sweetened with honey (and mint, if it’s around) to add some variation to drinking plain water, all day.
A note on Fennel stems:
Fennel stems may be the most overlooked portion of this plant. Use the fennel stems of very young and small fennel as a replacement for celery. Add very finely chopped fennel stalks (and bulbs, for that matter) the next time you’re prepping a mirepoix or sofrito. Once the stalks become big and thick, they are less tender and can be used simply to flavor soups, tossing the whole stem in your pot to simmer, and then removing it before you're ready to eat. Or, lay tough fennel stalks that have been sliced lengthwise at the bottom of any braises or pans of baked chicken. When in doubt, save fennel for your next batch of stock. But whatever you do, don’t leave fennel out of the fun. You’ll be a fennel fanatic before you know it, and you can thank me later.
A few fennel recipes to get you started:
Scroll to the bottom of last week's Recipe Roundup for some fennel dessert recipes