Ten years ago, The Washington Post Food section ran a story on fennel as if the vegetable needed a formal introduction. The author said she needed to identify it for the cashier and for shoppers who noticed it in her cart.
It’s not as crowd-inducing as the farmers markets’ incoming peaches and corn, but we ought to know fennel by now. It’s been around since Roman times (as we’ve pointed out via Market Watch archives). Selling points: a sweetness and licorice crunch when fresh; a lusciousness when braised; relatively long storage. The toga’ed set took it medicinally as well, to aid digestion, to stimulate appetite and to combat flatulence and colic.
About that licorice bit: You and I might not care much for the black chewy candies and jelly beans, but fennel’s flavor is something else entirely: not overwhelming in the raw vegetable, and especially subtle when cooked. It’s the background note in a palate-clearing cocktail made with anise liqueur and in a classic French stew. Puts you in the Mediterranean after a few bites.
You’ll find a refresher on how to choose it and use it — with recipes from our Recipe Finder — after the jump.
HOW TO SELECT AND STORE: Choose firm, unblemished bulbs with healthy-looking stalks and leaves. (I like shaving mandoline-thin, V-shaped slices from the relatively flat, small bulbs you can find at farmers markets, but be advised there might be more yield in the bigger, fatter bulbs.) Wrap the entire bulb with its stalks and fronds in plastic and store in the refrigerator for up to five days. Don't wash until just before using.
HOW TO PREPARE: Its parts may be greater than the whole: feather-weight fronds (flavoring, garnish), crisp stalks (eat them like celery, cut crosswise very thin, or toss into soups), white bulb (sliced thin for salads; sauteed, souped, roasted and braised, with an affinity for fish and oranges; in broths and on pizza, even), distinctive seeds (dried then roasted for deeper flavor), beautiful blossoms (a great addition to herb-mix salads).
Some recipes require only one part of the vegetable, some two and others use all three. If you use just the bulb, trim the stalks where they meet the bulb and reserve them and the leaves for another use. Detach and discard any of the bulb's ridged, outer layers that are bruised or discolored.
You can use a sharp knife to trim and discard about 1/8-inch slice from the bottom of the fennel bulb. Pull away the tough outer layers, on the left and right. Make two cuts on the bottom, forming a wide and shallow V, to discard the core.
TIP: If the fennel will not be used right away, soak the cut edges in acidulated water (you can use lemon juice) to keep the edges of the fennel from turning brown.
Chicken Bouillabaisse. Fennel’s at the heart of a classic bouillabaisse. This riff, from Jacques Pepin, has a long ingredient list yet is unfussy to prepare.
Fennel Panna Cotta With Grilled Strawberries. Were you expecting either of those elements in such an elegant dessert? Gotcha.
Fennel-Roasted Whole Salmon. Here’s that fish affinity I was talking about.
Fennel and Kohlrabi Salad. A stay-crisp charmer; you’d be wrong to underestimate how simple and successful a first course this will be.
Linguine With Clams, Fennel, Leeks and Saffron. Lots of flavor, not much fat.
Provencal Marinated Fennel. When life (or your farm-share basket) hands you a half dozen fennel bulbs, this is what to do with them.
Shaved Fennel, Pear and Tarragon Salad. Remember this one for fall.