Fennel is in season from fall through early spring, so make sure to take advantage of this crispy and slightly sweet vegetable while it is still at its seasonal best. Fennel has been popular in Europe, especially France and Italy, for literally thousands of years and is now also widely grown in the U.S. The unique flavor of fennel, which has an uncanny similarity to licorice and anise, makes for an appealing and distinctive vegetable choice.
The entirety of the fennel plant is edible, even though the stems and leaves (also referred to as "fronds") are typically discarded. The stalks can be a little tough, but they make a wonderful addition to vegetable stock. The fronds are lovely when chopped and used as a garnish.
Beyond the interesting and herbaceous flavor, fennel contains a range of phytonutrients that give it strong antioxidant and cancer-fighting properties. Its uses are almost as broad as those of an onion, so when the price is right, don't hesitate to stock up on this powerfully nutritious cold weather vegetable.
Choose fennel with bulbs that are white or light green in color with no splitting or bruising. They should be firm, solid and heavy feeling for their size. Skip over fennel if any flowering buds are present near the fronds, as that signifies that the plant is past its prime.
Store fennel in an open plastic or paper bag in the refrigerator for up to one week. It does gradually lose its flavor the longer it is stored, so it is ideal to use it right after purchase. Do not wash it until you are ready to use it, as the moisture encourages spoilage. If the bulb feels slimy or soft, the fennel is past its prime.
Raw in salads: The bulbs of fennel are similar to celery in their crispness and striated texture. Remove the tough outer leaves and slice the bulb into very thin pieces. Combine with segmented oranges or grapefruit and walnuts and toss with good olive oil and fresh pepper. You can also toss it with sliced Granny Smith apples and tarragon in light lemon dressing such as this.
Base for soups and sauces: Sautéed fennel adds a lovely sweet flavor to many soups and sauces. Add in a chopped fennel bulb when you are sautéing the onions to give your dish a little added complexity. For a simple and tasty variation on a classic tomato sauce, sauté onion, fennel and garlic until soft and add in good canned crushed tomatoes. Stir in Kalamata or nicoise olives and a touch of dried thyme.
Puree: For a fun spin on pureed potatoes, roast quartered fennel bulbs and onions until very soft. Puree with boiled potatoes and stir in a little butter or heavy cream. Season well and garnish chopped fennel fronds and serve with anything you would normally pair potatoes with.
Braised: Braising fennel really brings out their natural sweetness. Brown quartered fennel wedges in a large pan until caramelized on both sides. Add in some stock, cover and braise over low heat until it is very soft. Or, try this killer recipe for braised fennel with panko and Parmesan cheese:
Serves 4 as a side
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