Fennel offers a versatile option at mealtime
I recall my first taste of fresh fennel at a sidewalk cafe in Florence in Octobers golden sun. Served on a small, heavy white plate, it was thinly sliced, with a drizzle of dark-green peppery olive oil, sprinkled with cracked pepper. The delicate anise notes shone through its satisfying crunch.
Fennel, aka licorice celery is underappreciated back here in the States. Few vegetables are more efficient; its amazingly versatile, delicious both raw and cooked. Crisp as celery, raw fennel is not as stringy. Sliced thin, its a refreshing addition to salad and a wonderful stand-in for cabbage in coleslaw.
Cooked fennel softens and turns silky, as the natural sugars evolve. Treated to slow, low heat, it becomes caramel-sweet; in Italy and Spain, its often served for dessert.
Most fennel recipes focus on the bulb, but the stalks, if not too tough, can be chopped and added to salads and soups. The feathery fronds make a very pretty garnish; when minced they become a fresh herb.
Look for fresh, local fennel at our farmers markets, co-ops and in our stores. The bulbs should be tight and greenish-white with little or no browning or shriveled parts. Store the fennel loosely wrapped in a kitchen towel or paper bag in the vegetable bin for up to a week; plastic traps moisture and makes the vegetable slimy.
As with any fresh vegetable, its best to enjoy fennel as soon as you can. If the stalks are too long, cut them off and store separately. Fennel must not be chopped too far ahead because its charm is the pure white color and the crunch, both of which fade with time.
Fennel, both the raw and the cooked, goes famously well with fish. Often combined with carrots and with potatoes in a soup or a gratin, fennel adds a depth of flavor to any dish. In winter salads, the anise favors work especially well with oranges and olives, sweet bell peppers and feta, or apples and dried fruit. Fennel can replace some or all of the celery in a Waldorf salad; try it in your favorite coleslaw recipe.
Fresh fennel seeds season a wide range of whole-wheat breads and crackers, and play an important role in spice mixes for seafood and for pork ribs. They are essential in Italian sausage, which when grilled or braised and paired with a fennel salad or braised fennel, make an excellent match.
Beth Dooley is the author of In Winters Kitchen. Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.