Set the Table with Fennel
Written onJune 01 , 2012
One of my favorite things about fennel is how there are so many different edible parts of the plant and how tasty they all seem to be. The bulb is what most folks think of when they think of cooking with fennel, but the seeds (which, interestingly, aren’t actually seeds, but dried up little fruits) are used around the world. Europeans, who first cultivated the fennel plant, include the seeds in Italian sausage. Middle Easterners use it in dukkah (a spice blend seasoning). Indians will often use it in chai. And Chinese five-spice powder is used across the nation (theirs and ours). The seeds can also be used medicinally or as a breath freshening after-dinner snack. I find that they make a spectacular addition to breads, especially in place of caraway seeds. I also like adding them to ground beef dishes, to give a dish a nice sausage flavor, without the added fat.
The feathery stems and leaves of a fennel plant (the “fronds”) are abundant and voluminous and make tasty additions to salads or to salad dressing (see sidebar recipe). But unless you love munching on feathery licorice on a regular basis, you’ll probably end up with more fennel fronds than you know what to do with. My hands-down favorite use for leftover fennel stems and fronds is in vegetable, chicken, or beef broth. I save all my tasty vegetable scraps in a bag in the freezer and then boil them with a little salt when I have a spare hour in the kitchen. I freeze the tasty broth to use in soups, risottos, or whatever suits the mood. The broths that include fennel are always sublime. I’m often tempted to just eat the broth straight, it’s that good.
Fresh fennel shares the licorice-tasting flavor compound, anethole, with licorice and anise and all are key ingredients in the potent potable called absinthe. While many folks confuse the names, all three plants are completely unrelated (fennel is actually part of the parsley family). Fennel is also an excellent source of potassium, vitamin C, and fiber. If you’re bold enough to eat a whole bulb, you’ll get more potassium from fennel than from a banana. This essential electrolyte could be the reason that Pheidippides was able to run his extraordinary distance in the Battle of Marathon in ancient Greece, as the Greek word for fennel is “marathon,” and the storied battle is said to have taken place in a fennel field.
While fennel is abundant on Vermont farms, to me, fennel was always a street weed. Its love of full sun and well-drained, nutrient-poor soil meant that it grew in every abandoned lot and poorly maintained yard in my northern California hometown. I loved snacking on the fronds while out and about, in part because I loved the licorice taste, but mostly because it horrified my licorice-hating friends (those were the friends who always gave me their black jelly beans). But it never occurred to me to eat the bulb.
I was always confused when I heard about folks cooking with fennel because they would use it in dishes where a licorice flavor had no place. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I figured out that cooking fennel nearly eliminates the licorice flavor, leaving behind a sweet essence that goes well with almost any dish. I now like to think of cooked fennel bulb as having the flavor of cooked onion crossed with celery and an extra little bit of something delicious. In fact, many folks recommend using fennel in place of celery in fresh or cooked dishes.
After I learned this, I immediately started putting the scrumptious bulb into just about everything I make and have never stopped. Actually, while developing the recipes for this article, I had to repeatedly buy more fennel bulbs because I kept using my supply in dishes that had nothing to do with this article. It makes a great base flavor for hot sauce, soups, stirfries, and almost anything else in which an onion or celery would taste good. I even sautéed it with the vegetables destined for a lamb liver páte.
If you’re including fennel bulb alongside onion in a dish, slice it thinner or dice it smaller than the onion. The fennel bulb’s denser structure means that it takes a little longer to cook. The seeds and/or the cooked and puréed bulb also make a delicious addition to meatballs. And it’s great straight up. Slice the bulb in half or in quarters and remove just enough of the core that the layers of the fennel bulb still hold together, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill it for 10 to 20 minutes, until delicious. You can eat it just like that, or drizzle the cooked fennel with lemon juice or your favorite sauce or salad dressing. I love tossing slices of fennel into a pan with onions and spinach for my morning eggs.
Truth is, there are few savory dishes that wouldn’t improve with the right part of the fennel plant added at the right stage. This is a “go crazy” kind of ingredient. Have fun and experiment and you’ll surely create something delicious.