Fennel is my favourite vegetable by all counts, but not one that I see people cooking with very often. However, I use it all the time, and I’m always pleasantly surprised by the many ways it can be used.
Fennel is a root vegetable that looks like a cross between a white onion and celery, with dill sprouting from the top. In medieval Europe, fennel was believed to be apotropaic: people carried fennel bulbs around or ate dishes with fennel to ward off the evil eye. It’s popular in Italian cuisine, but also goes well with most Mediterranean ingredients. It’s a key ingredient in absinthe, and its Italian name, finocchio, has gay connotations in contemporary slang. And to think, so many people pass it in the supermarket without giving it a second glance.
Fennel is a really unique vegetable because you can eat it raw or cooked, but it tastes radically different in these two forms. Raw, fennel tastes distinctly like licorice or anise. Many Italians eat raw fennel after meals to cleanse their palettes. Cooked, this flavour mellows and becomes sweet and mild. Any time you’re roasting or braising winter or root vegetables, consider cooking fennel with potatoes, celery, shallots, or leeks.
A note on cutting up a fennel bulb: discard the green stalks at the top and the outermost layer of the vegetable. Reserve some of the soft green fronds at the top. It’s easiest to next slice the bulb in half. You’ll notice a tough, fibrous core at the base. This is inedible, so remove it and cook with the layers that remain.
I had some friends over for dinner last weekend and decided to focus on fennel: I served it in two dishes, raw and cooked. As an appetizer, I cut two bulbs of fennel and half of a red onion into paper-thin slices (it takes a very sharp knife and a lot of patience), creating long strands. I tossed the slices with olive oil, salt, pepper, and grapefruit juice. I happened to have a blood orange on hand, so I chopped some segments and tossed them in. This salad was aggressive, edgy and filled with bright flavours and delightful crunch. It was outstanding. I garnished the salad with chopped fennel fronds, which looked bright and green on top of the red and white salad.
For the main course, I sautéed chopped fennel and zucchini in olive oil with lots of salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. I tossed the tender vegetables with linguine, and garnished the dish with chopped fennel fronds and basil. I only used one fennel bulb and one zucchini to serve four people, but I would use two zucchini and two fennel next time. When I served the dish, it seemed boring, so at the last minute, I chopped some walnuts and toasted them briefly in a pan over high heat, and tossed them with the pasta. This was definitely the missing ingredient: the walnuts added crunch and richness.
If you’ve never cooked with fennel before, give it a chance. And if you have, keep pushing it further and see what you can do with it – it’s truly one of the unsung heroes of the supermarket.