I can still remember my first taste of raw fennel.
I had yet to reach the age of happily consuming vegetables (and broccoli only served to amuse me with its tree-like appearance), but here was a crunchy vegetable that looked a little like celery and… TASTED A LOT LIKE CANDY! One crisp, licorice-scented bite and I was hooked.
Once I started cooking on regular basis, my childhood appreciation of fennel’s sweet flavor developed into a deep, abiding love.
It might seem silly to declare my devotion to foeniculum vulgare, but I find fennel to be such an engaging ingredient. This singular vegetable develops a variety of characteristics based on different preparations, and it brings its distinct flavor to whatever I’m preparing.
Since fennel offers a hint of spring before most of the real spring vegetables arrive, now’s a great time to experiment with a few tasty ideas… both raw and cooked.
My sister, Carmen, who spent several months cooking and working on farms in Italy, tells me that raw fennel plays a big part in the olive harvest of in the Umbria region.
Once the farmers have pressed their first batch of olio nouvo (oil from the new crop of olives), they consume the lush, fruity olive oil by scooping it up with slices of raw fennel.
I can’t imagine a more perfect situation. But if you don’t happen to be a witness at the Italian olive harvest, here are a few other thoughts…
Five Fast Ideas for Raw Fennel
1. Thinly sliced fennel is a great way to dress up simple green salads or coleslaw. Try using a mandoline to get uniform paper-thin slices.
2. Break with tradition and serve thin wedges of fennel with Buffalo wings instead of celery. I love the heat and sweet together.
3. Finely chopped fennel mixed with dried cranberries and minced sweet onions makes a refreshing relish perfect for topping grilled pork or lamb.
5. Try diced fennel instead of (or in addition to) celery in chicken or tuna salads.
Some folks find raw fennel off-putting. Roasting or sautéing help to tame fennel’s licorice-bite and produce a richer flavor.
Five Ideas for Cooked Fennel
1. Dress sliced fennel with olive oil and salt, then roast at 400° until tender and golden (about 25-30 minutes). Enjoy on its own or toss with cooked pasta and freshly cracked black pepper for a simple (but lovely), weeknight dinner.
2. Roast a marinated, cut-up chicken over a bed of thickly sliced fennel for a richly flavored side dish that’s ready at the same time as your entrée.
3. Tuck thin slices of fennel, tomato and potato under fish fillets and bake en papillote (“in parchment” — essentially steaming food in sealed envelope of parchment paper).
4. I use sweet Italian sausage (which is traditionally seasoned with fennel seeds) and fresh fennel when I make stuffing. There’s a nice “echo” of flavor between the spice and the vegetable.
5. Try fennel instead of celery as a base vegetable in stocks, soups and pasta sauces. Fennel definitely mellows out with longer cooking, but I think it retains enough of its unique flavor to justify the swap.
Inspired? Click here for our One-Click Recipes that feature fennel.
Even though fennel’s white bulb gets the most use, you shouldn’t throw away the rest of it! Save the thick green stalks to make homemade stock — it’s super-tasty in vegetable, fish and chicken stock.
Trim and clean the feathery fronds as you would fresh dill; add to mixed green salads; mince it up for dips or marinades; use as a pretty garnish.
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