I’ve often wondered why fennel isn’t more popular than it is. Certainly, it’s more common now than in recent years, but I find many people are still somewhat intimidated by this lovely vegetable. It could be because it is often mislabeled anise or sweet anise, and people are suspicious of a too bold liquorice taste. Or perhaps it’s because it seems difficult to prepare, looking a bit like celery on steroids. The bulb is, in fact, an inflated leaf base. What do you do with that? Time to quell those fears.
Fennel is a member of the large carrot family; an umbellifer, which describes the flower clusters of this charming clan… picture an umbrella and its spokes. Common fennel, used mostly for its pollen and seeds, is an aggressive naturalized perennial plant that flourishes in milder climes, especially drawn to open areas. The tall feathery-leafed plants are a common fixture along California roadsides, for example. But we are unlikely to be foraging for either pollen or seeds, so it’s the fruit of cultivation we are concerned with here, the fennel bulb of the Florentine variety.
As the incomparable vegetable guru Deborah Madison says, “few vegetables are more efficient as fennel.” From head to toe – pollen, seeds, stalks, leaves and bulbs, cooked or raw – fennel offers it all. Add to that roster delicious and versatile, and you have a most exemplary vegetable indeed. Fennel has a mild sweet anise-like flavour, which becomes milder still when cooked. It is crisp and refreshing as (or in) a salad; sweet and buttery when braised, my favourite preparation.
For a silky, citrusy braise, three medium-to-large bulbs (about the size of a baseball) will do nicely for 6 people. Begin by cutting off, across the top of the bulb, the hollow stalks with their lacy dill-like leaves, keeping these and all the other trimmings, aside. Trim the root end and pull off the coarser outer layer of the bulb until you get to the pristine white inner bit. Don’t be too energetic with this as the braising will soften a trimmed, albeit slightly tough outer layer. Halve the bulb, top to bottom, and then cut into 4-6 wedges, depending on the size of the bulb. As with an onion, keep the core intact to ensure the wedges stay together. In a hot pan, sauté the wedges in a little butter and olive oil mixed, until golden. Add salt, a splash of white wine (maybe a resiling or gewurztraminer, but anything nice will do), lemon (or orange) zest and squeeze of juice, and light chicken or vegetable stock to about halfway up the fennel. Lower the heat, cover, and cook for 15-20 minutes or until the fennel is easily pierced with something pointy. Check once halfway through to make sure all the liquid hasn’t been cooked away. If so, add a little more. Served garnished with a few fronds, saving the rest of the debris for stock. Throw nothing out!
When buying fennel, look for firm, plump round bulbs with little bruising or blemishes on the outer layer. Remember you will be peeling off that outer layer, but the bulb should not look dry or fibrous. Flat bulbs are not as desirable but will have a more pronounced anise-like flavour if that is what is wanted. The stalks and frond-like leaves should be fresh and bright green. Fennel is available most of the year, but especially in spring and early summer. As the season progresses the bulbs are more likely to be less juicy, the leaves tough and the core bitter. It is more expensive than celery, of course, but I will often substitute it, especially when the swap-out will be noticed. The addition of chopped fennel (including leaves) in a soup or stew, even a ratatouille, is subtle but delicious.
Nothing quite compares to finely sliced raw fennel in a tossed salad. As a salad, however, it transcends. One large bulb will easily make a nice little side dish for 3-4 people. Ready a bowl of ice water with lemon juice. Trim the bulb(s) as described above and halve. If you choose, you may remove the core before finely slicing, but as I have rarely found a fennel core to be anything but sweet and crunchy, I do not. If you do, be sure to eat it as you prepare the rest of the salad. Really, people throw out the most wonderful things! Toss the sliced fennel in the ice water and let sit for at least 20 minutes; drain and spin dry before dressing with Maldon salt, fresh lemon and /or orange juice and zest and some very good fruity olive oil. A crisp, tart, red skinned apple, cut in thin slices or some particularly sweet celery, cut in long diagonals, are perfectly lovely additions… and extenders.
On a trivial note, green fennel is essential, along with wormwood – one of several herbaceous ingredients in absinthe, lending its notable liquorice flavour to this intriguing spirit. Now that the ‘green fairy’ myth has been debunked, one can purchase this tipple once again and sip without fear of madness. But my favourite fennel tie-in is Prometheus’ daring theft of fire from the gods on Olympus, embers hidden in the hollow of a fennel stalk, for which he paid so dearly. Tragic stories, tasty meals, the culinary world in a nutshell… or a fennel stalk.
Illustration by Alison Martin