It’s a rarity in the kitchen: a vegetable that’s sweet.
But that’s just part of the allure of fennel, a Mediterranean staple that’s finally catching on with American cooks and diners.
“One of the main things I like about fennel is its versatility and the way its flavor changes from raw to cooked,” said award-winning author Georgeanne Brennan, whose latest cookbook – “La Vie Rustic: Cooking and Living in the French Style” (Weldon Owen, 290 pages, $35) – features four fennel recipes.
“Raw, it’s crunchy and definitely has a licoricelike flavor, which is wonderful with things like anchovies and Parmesan cheese,” said Brennan, who lives in a Winters farmhouse. “I like to julienne it, toss it with an anchovy- and Parmesan-laden vinaigrette, or to thinly slice and chop it to add to any salad.”
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While fennel’s licorice taste can be rather pronounced (sometimes overpowering) when eaten raw, it blends in with other ingredients when cooked.
“Cooked, the flavor mellows to a pleasant hint of anise,” Brennan added, “and the fennel becomes meltingly soft.”
Despite this vegetable’s centuries of use in Europe, fennel fear seems common among American cooks. Several food bloggers – from Serious Eats to My Kitchen Harvest – have written about their personal experience with fennel phobia.
Some eaters can’t get past fennel’s licorice scent and flavor. It reminds them of Good & Plenty candy.
Right now, fennel is both good and plentiful. In California, fennel is treated as a cool season crop with the biggest, bulbous bundles showing up in farmers’ markets in March and April.
Those who have discovered fennel’s flair gravitate to this unusual veggie, which looks like pale celery wearing a wispy bright green wig.
“I love everything about fennel!” said Carmichael’s Elise Bauer, creator of the popular food blog and website SimplyRecipes.com. “Braised, roasted, or raw in salads. It’s especially good paired with fish, either in a side slaw or cooked with the fish. It’s also exceptional with Parmesan, either in a shaved fennel and Parmesan salad or baked in a gratin with a Parmesan topping.”
The whole fennel plant is edible, from its the bulbous base to its feathery leaves. Fennel seed may be among the most Italian of spices.
“Fennel seed is the seasoning that makes Italian sausage taste like Italian sausage,” Bauer said. “So, if you want ground pork to taste like Italian sausage, just add some fennel seeds to it.”
Local chefs use this flavorful vegetable in many ways. For example, Sacramento’s OBO’ Italian Table adds fresh fennel to its cold salmon salad as well as its mixed green salad. Mulvaney’s B&L uses fennel as an accompaniment to grilled ahi tuna. Fennel is an essential part of The Waterboy’s aromatic bouillabaisse.
Taste Restaurant in Plymouth uses caramelized fennel as a garnish for roasted squash soup and serves shaved fennel alongside roast quail. Roseville’s Le Provence teamed caramelized fennel with cauliflower over pappardelle pasta.
Fennel pairs particularly well with other strong-flavored ingredients such as fish, citrus and cheese.
“One of my favorites is fennel gratin with tomato,” Brennan said. “Thin slices of fennel – cut lengthwise – gently sauteed in olive oil with garlic and seasonings, then layered in a baking dish, topped with fresh tomato sauce, then sprinkled with a gremolata (finely chopped lemon zest, parsley and garlic) and baked.”
Brennan also recommended another gratin: “This one with the fennel bulbs quartered lengthwise, par boiled, then tightly packed into a baking dish and slathered with a bechamel sauce, and topped with grated Gruyere and baked.”
With the raw bulb, she makes a salad of fennel, fig and fresh goat cheese. The fennel is shaved paper-thin with a mandoline slicer.
Fennel salads often incorporate fruit to play off fennel’s natural sweetness. But why stop there?
Like rhubarb, fennel also makes it into desserts such as blackberry-fennel cobbler or pear-fennel crisp. The seed also spices up desserts in uncommon ways. For example, Bauer suggested adding ground fennel seed to pie crust for an apricot-cherry galette. To these desserts, fennel adds a subtle touch of its licorice scent and flavor, too.
It’s enough to overcome any fear of fennel – even for non-licorice lovers.
Salmon with fennel baked in parchment
This recipe ranks among Elise Bauer’s fennel favorites on her website, SimplyRecipes.com, which also features a video on how to wrap fish in parchment for baking. Dry white wine may be substituted for the lemon juice.
Four 12-by-18-inch pieces of parchment paper or aluminum foil
1 fennel bulb, sliced paper thin
Four 6-ounce portions of fresh salmon fillets (skinless is best)
Lemon juice (to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper
12 very thin slices of whole lemon (from 1 to 2 lemons)
Several sprigs of fresh fennel fronds
2 tablespoons butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Lay down a square of parchment paper or foil on a flat surface. Fold the parchment in half to create a crease, then open it up again.
Below the crease of the parchment paper, place several slices of fennel bulb in a mound, and sprinkle with salt. Place one fillet of salmon on top of the fennel bulb slices. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over the salmon (anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon, or to taste). Sprinkle the salmon generously with salt and pepper.
Lay sprigs of fennel fronds over the salmon. Lay 3 thin slices of lemon over the fennel fronds and salmon (more if you want). Dot the top with butter.
Fold the parchment over the salmon and secure close. There are several ways that you can accomplish this. One easy and particularly attractive way is to fold a corner near the folded edge of the parchment paper into a triangle. Then about halfway down that triangle, fold another triangle over the previous triangle.
Working down and around the parchment edges, you can create folds all around the edges. When you come to the last folded edge, tuck the corner under the parchment.
Place on a roasting pan or baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.
Serve immediately. To serve, you can either carefully transfer each salmon fillet and mound of fennel slices to individual plates, or you can serve the salmon in the pouch itself, on a plate.
To eat, you can either unwrap the pouch, or cut through the top with a sharp knife to expose the salmon inside.
Roasted fennel and lemon salad with turmeric walnuts
Roasting mellows the licorice-like flavors of fennel, which becomes the centerpiece of this winter salad. Blanching softens and takes the bite out of the lemon slices; they add a wonderful chewy tartness. You’ll need three rimmed baking sheets.
Make ahead: The roasted fennel and lemons can be refrigerated for up to 5 days. Let them come to room temperature before assembling the salad. The turmeric walnuts can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks; they make a great snack or accompaniment to cheeses or other salads.
Adapted by the Washington Post from “The Yoga Kitchen,” by Kimberly Parsons (Quadrille).
1/4 cup honey
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup raw walnut halves
4 medium fennel bulbs, a few fronds reserved for optional garnish
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1 cup loosely packed baby spinach leaves (may substitute pea shoots or watercress)
1/4 cup fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
Sherry or red wine vinegar, for serving
Flaky sea salt, for serving
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line three rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
Whisk together the honey, crushed red pepper flakes, turmeric and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt in a medium bowl to form a thick paste, adding a splash of water, as needed, to help loosen it. Stir in the walnuts until well coated, then spread them out one of the lined baking sheets. Roast until bronzed and crunchy but still a little sticky, 15 minutes. Let cool. Increase the oven temperature to 425 degrees.
Cut the lemons in half lengthwise. Remove as many of the seeds as you can, then cut the halves crosswise into 1/8-inch slices. Remove the stems and fronds from the fennel bulbs, trim the bulbs, then cut each bulb into 8 wedges (without removing the cores). Reserve some fronds for garnish, if desired.
Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil over high heat, then add the lemon slices and boil (blanch) for 2 minutes. Drain well, then combine the lemon slices and the fennel wedges in a large bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon sea salt, tossing gently to incorporate.
Divide the mixture between the remaining two baking sheets, spreading it evenly. Roast until the lemons have dried out and started to brown on the edges and the fennel is just cooked through (but not mushy), 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool. Return the roasted fennel and lemons to the same large bowl, scraping in any pan juices, too, then add the spinach and tarragon and toss to incorporate. Drizzle in another 1 tablespoon of the oil and toss to distribute.
Divide the mixture among individual plates. Scatter the turmeric walnuts on the salads. Drizzle with a little more oil and sherry vinegar, and finish with the flaky salt. Garnish with fennel fronds, if you’d like.
Raw beet slaw with fennel, tart apple and parsley
Prep time: 25 minutes
Diane Morgan, author of “Roots” (Chronicle Books), suggests serving this at a barbecue, at brunch with cured salmon or alongside country pate. Use a mandoline or a sharp chef’s knife to cut beets into matchsticks. Use disposable surgical gloves, or you’ll end up with red hands.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon each: fresh lemon juice, freshly grated orange zest
1/2 teaspoon each: honey, fine sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 medium red beet, 3 to 5 ounces, peeled, cut into matchsticks
1/2 fennel bulb, trimmed, halved lengthwise, cored, cut into matchsticks
1/2 medium crisp tart apple such as Granny Smith, cored, cut into matchsticks
1/2 cup firmly packed chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
In a small bowl, whisk together oil, lemon juice, orange zest, honey, salt and pepper. In a medium bowl, toss together beet, fennel, apple and parsley. Add dressing. Mix gently to coat ingredients evenly. Serve immediately, or cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before serving. Slaw can be made up to 8 hours in advance. Presentation note: If you don’t serve immediately and want to prevent the beets from tinting the fennel, keep beets separate (dressed with half the dressing) and mix in right before serving.
Per serving: 128 calories; 10 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 9 g carbohydrates; 1 g protein; 386 mg sodium; 2 g fiber
Baked fennel with Parmesan and thyme
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
A savory side dish for roasted chicken, pork or fish. Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart.
3 fennel bulbs, trimmed and split lengthwise
1 tablespoon softened butter, plus more for baking dish
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
4 sprigs thyme
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Place fennel bulbs in a medium saucepan and just cover with water. Bring water to a boil, then continue to boil bulbs 15 minutes or until tender. Drain fennel, cut side down, on paper towels, for a few minutes.
Place bulbs, cut side up, in a buttered 8-inch baking dish; brush them with the 1 tablespoon softened butter.
Season to taste with the salt and pepper, then top with 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese and the thyme sprigs.
Bake until the cheese is golden, about 20 minutes.
Sicilian-style citrus salad
Total time: 30 minutes
An assortment of multicolored oranges can be quite beautiful, though for this salad it is fine to use just one kind, with blood orange as the classic example. Arrange citrus slices on a large platter. Add thinly sliced fennel, celery and red onion for a tasty bit of crunch. Surround it with sturdy winter salad leaves, like escarole, if you like, or choose sharp arugula or watercress sprigs. It will still be great with no greens at all. Dress it assertively with fruity olive oil and tangy wine vinegar, and scatter briny olives and flaky sea salt before serving.
A harmonious combination of sweet and salty is what you’re going for. To take it up a notch, add some chopped anchovy or capers and a pinch of hot crushed red pepper, or some shavings of salty aged pecorino cheese.
Recipe from the New York Times.
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
2 navel oranges
4 blood oranges
2 Cara Cara oranges
1 small grapefruit
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced
1 small fennel bulb, very thinly sliced, enough to make 1 cup
2 or 3 tender inside celery stalks, thinly sliced at an angle
Handful of olives, black oil cured type or green Castelvetrano type, pitted
Winter salad leaves, such as radicchio or escarole, optional
Large pinch of flaky sea salt
Make the vinaigrette: Whisk together olive oil and vinegar in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. It should be tart but not over-vinegary. Taste and add a little more olive oil if necessary.
To peel the citrus fruit, use a small serrated knife. First, cut off a thin slice of peel from the top and bottom of the orange, so it can sit flat and securely on the cutting board. Use a sawing motion to take off the peel, cutting from top to bottom, following the curve of the fruit. Remove only the peel and white pith, not the flesh of the orange. It should now be perfectly spherical and naked. Peel remaining oranges and grapefruit in this fashion.
Carefully slice peeled citrus crosswise. Arrange slices on a large serving platter in a random pattern, letting them overlap a bit here and there. Scatter onion, fennel and celery over top. Dot the surface with olives. Surround with salad leaves, if using.
Whisk vinaigrette, and spoon evenly over the salad. Sprinkle lightly with flaky salt and serve.
Fennel and onion soup
Total time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Serves 4 to 6
Recipe from the Los Angeles Times.
2 fennel bulbs (about 1 1/2 pounds)
2 large onions (about 1 1/2 pounds)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup light dry white wine
9 cups light vegetable stock (preferably homemade)
2 teaspoons salt, plus more to tste
2 tablespoons Armagnac, optional
Eight 1/2-inch slices baguette
1 large garlic clove, halved
Trim the feathery fronds and stems from the fennel bulbs. Chop 1 tablespoon of the fronds and reserve. Cut the bulbs in half lengthwise and remove the cores. Thinly slice on a mandoline.
Peel the onions, then very thinly slice on a mandoline.
Heat the oil in a heavy 5 1/2 -quart sauce pot and sauté the fennel, onions and sugar over high heat for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the vegetables are very tender and lightly browned, 30 to 40 minutes.
Add the wine and simmer 1 to 2 minutes or until the wine is almost evaporated. Add the vegetable stock and salt. Cover and simmer 20 minutes to blend flavors.
Add the Armagnac, if using, and simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes. Stir in the reserved chopped fennel fronds. Season to taste with salt.
Put the baguette slices on a baking sheet. Broil until golden brown and crisp, about 45 seconds to 1 minute. Rub each slice with the cut garlic clove, then turn and brown the other side, about 20 seconds. Serve the soup with the garlic toasts on the side.