Fantastic Fennel

It's delicious raw or cooked. Learning how to cook with fennel will enliven everyday meals

By FamilyTime


Have you noticed a vegetable that resembles an overgrown head of squashed celery? That's fennel.

The bulb with the pretty, feathery leaves, is also called sweet fennel, finocchio, or Florence fennel. Some grocers mislabel it sweet anise. Fennel, which is native to the Mediterranean, shows up often in Italian and Greek cooking.

Whatever it's called and wherever it's from, fennel is a marvelous vegetable that is as good raw as it is braised, baked, sautéed, or grilled.

When and How to Buy Fennel
Fennel is at its best in the late fall and through the winter, although nowadays it's available nearly all year.

Look for it in the produce section of the supermarket as well as in greengrocers and specialty shops. Choose pale green-to-white bulbs with tight, overlapping layers. The fern-like leaves should be bright green and healthy looking.

Avoid fennel with signs of browning, wilted leaves, or dried and cracked bulbs.

How to Store and Prepare Fennel
If you don't plan to use fennel on the day you buy it, store the bulbs in a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator. Plan to serve it within five days. After that, it loses its characteristic and desirable crispness, not to mention its flavor.

Cut the green feathery leaves from the fennel bulb. Reserve them for garnish or to flavor soups, stews, and sauces.

Pull off and discard any tough or discolored outer layers of the bulb. Cut the bulb in half and remove the core. If the bulb is especially young and tender, it may be unnecessary to remove the core.

Carefully separate the layers, rinse well to remove any grit, and then slice or chop them, depending on the recipe.

How to Serve Fennel
In its raw state, fennel tastes mildly of licorice, which explains why it may be called sweet anise by the misinformed. But this hint of anise is only a small part of raw fennel's appeal. It is sweet and delicate, crisp and juicy.

Raw fennel is great mixed with red onions, scallions, or chives and tossed with a light citrusy vinaigrette. It has a special affinity for oranges. Toss it with arugula, olives, pomegranate seeds, cold beets, goat cheese, Parmesan, or feta.

When it's cooked, its anise flavor diminishes, leaving behind a mild, sweet-tasting vegetable that complements fish, shellfish, sweet sausages, and vegetables such as tomatoes, artichokes, and potatoes. It's delicious in soups and stews, and even braised and tossed with garlic and pasta.

What are Fennel Seeds?
As you come to appreciate fennel, you might be tempted to substitute fennel seeds, sold in the spice aisle of the supermarket, for fresh fennel. Don't be fooled.

Fennel seeds come from common fennel, a relation of sweet fennel, but one that rarely is sold or eaten fresh by the everyday consumer.

The seeds are quite strong tasting and while they have their culinary uses, should not be used in place of fresh sweet fennel. Use them only when a recipe instructs you to. You will find them in both sweet and savory recipes, particularly those for pickles, stews, and baked goods.