Friday, July 23, 2010

Focus: FENNEL (Foeniculum vulgare dulce)

Don't let fennel scare you just because it is unfamiliar.  It is a lovely and versatile vegetable with a flavor of licorice or anise.  It can be eaten raw in salads or as part of an antipasto.   Or it can be braised, roasted or sauteed.  Cooking fennel mellows the flavor and texture.

In Italy - where it is a favorite vegetable -  it is often eaten in pinzimonio - to be eaten with the fingers.  Thin raw wedges are dipped into very good olive oil seasoned with salt and pepper.  If you have some fine olive oil around that you have been saving for a special occasion - this is the time to bring it out.

Mark Bittman says "Celery and fennel are almost always interchangeable".  This is true even though the flavors of the two are very different.   For example, if you are sauteing diced onion and carrot for a tomato sauce - you can add some diced fennel instead of celery for a special flavor.

There are two kinds of fennel - one is sweet Florence fennel.  It was developed in Italy in the 17th century.  With this fennel, you can eat the bulb - which is really a swollen stem - as well as the fronds or leaves.  The other is "wild" fennel which is grown as an herb.  The feathery bright green leaves are used in salads and sauces (especially good with fish or seafood salads) and the fennel seeds are a familiar seasoning in breads, Italian sausage and other dishes.  Indians chew fennel seed as a breath freshener. 

Remove the stalks and leaves.  Store bulb in plastic bag in refrigerator up to one week.

Wash and dry the bulb and trim away the stalks.  Save the feathery leaves for salads or seasoning.  I often use the stalks to make a stock.  Trim the root end - but not too high up.  You want the bulb to stay intact if possible.  If there are tough, dry or discolored outer leaves, cut those away.  Cut the bulb in half lengthwise.  You can then cut each half - either lengthwise into wedges or crosswise into thin slices.

Cut up the bulb  close to the time when it is needed.  Otherwise the pieces will oxidize and turn brown.

Serving Ideas

Antipasto - Dip thin raw wedges or slices in good olive oil seasoned with salt and pepper. Serve with olives, thinly sliced cured sausage and good bread.  Roasted eggplant or red pepper would provide a nice contrast to the crisp and sweet fennel.

Orange Fennel Salad - Thinly slice fennel crosswise.  Mix with olive oil, fresh orange and lemon juice, orange slices and salt and pepper.  Garnish with fennel fronds.  If you have arugula or thinly sliced sweet onion, add that to salad as well.

Simplest Fennel Salad -  Thinly slice fennel crosswise.  Dress with olive oil and lemon juice and a little salt. Mix in some chopped leaves.  This would be good served with broiled fish.

Roasted - Slice in 1/2 inch wedges.  Mix with a small amount of oil and place on a baking sheet in one layer.   Bake at 375 degrees until tender.

Gratin - Cut bulb in half and cut each half into about 6 wedges.  Cook wedges in boiling salted water about 5 minutes or until tender.  Reserve some of cooking liquid.
Make a thin white sauce.  Cook  2 T. butter with  1 1/2 T. flour for a few minutes.  Gradually whisk in  1/3 cup milk and 1/3 cup fennel cooking liquid.  Simmer about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Season with salt, pinch of nutmeg and 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese.  Place fennel in one layer in a buttered baking dish.  Pour sauce on top.  Bake for 20 minutes at 375 degrees, until browned on top.

Tomorrow:  Tried and True: Coleslaw


  1. you know, i have never tried've made it sound so delicious that now i might, thanks!

  2. Last Christmas we made roasted fennel mashed potatoes and they were the best mashed potatoes I've ever had! If I find my recipe printout I'll post it.