Fennel is a dividing vegetable. You either love it or hate it. Or perhaps you avoid cooking the celery-shaped bulb because you’re not quite sure what to do with it.Whichever camp you fall into, learning how to coax the best from this versatile and flavourful vegetable will deliver delicious rewards.
The fennel bulb comes from the same family as the herb and seed of the same name, and is also known as Florence fennel, finocchio and sweet fennel. Its robust aniseed flavour is what puts off most detractors, but cooked the right way, fennel’s assertive notes can be mellowed into deep sweet flavours.
Aside from the aniseed notes, another key stumbling block for fennel naysayers is the question of how to prepare it. Because the bulb looks a little gnarly, with several stalks and fronds, it looks challenging to ready for the pot, but nothing could be simpler. Wash in cool water and slice off the green fronds (reserving them to use as a garnish). When you do with it then depends on how you wish to cook the bulb.
For those who relish fennel’s aniseed flavour and crisp texture, dig into it raw. Slice the bulb finely into rings with a large sharp knife or on a mandolin, discarding any tough outer skin, and enjoy in a salad or slaw. Fennel and sliced oranges dressed in olive oil is a classic combination in Italian and Spanish cuisine, as the liquorice and sweet fruit notes work beautifully together. Add black olives for extra salty punch. Or combine sliced fennel with other slaw-suitable vegetables such as carrot, kohlrabi and cabbage.
Fennel salad pairs wonderfully with seafood, as the aniseed flavour heightens and brightens the fishy notes. Just serve it simply, as a side: finely slice the fennel bulb and chop the fronds, then toss both in a sharp vinaigrette. Or stuff the cavity of a whole fish with sliced fennel before roasting or barbecuing for a gentle infusion of flavour.
Fennel’s assertive character becomes gentler with the application of heat; depending on the cooking method, the aniseed notes can melt away almost entirely. Fennel is a fine alternative to onion in a sofrito – that classic aromatic flavour base for soups, stews and other dishes. Just finely chop as you would onion, and lightly fry with carrots and celery.
To turn fennel into something utterly sweet, sticky and delicious, slowly braise in olive oil, or consider roasting it in chunks. Just toss in olive oil, season with salt and spread out in a roasting tray and then bake in a moderate oven until golden, tender and sweet. Enjoy on its own as a side, or add other vegetables to the roasting tray that will take roughly the same time to cook: chunks of red pepper, courgette and sweet potato all fit the bill here. You could add good pork sausages to the tray too, if you like. Don’t forget that fennel barbecues well: coat thick slices in olive oil and grill until tender and charred.
Fennel gratin is a winning riff on the roasting idea. Cut four large fennel bulbs into wedges and boil in salted water until almost tender, then drain and arrange snuggly in a baking dish. Combine one cup of cream with one or two finely chopped garlic cloves and/or a few chopped anchovy fillets. Pour the cream mixture over the fennel and sprinkle generously with finely grated Parmesan cheese. Bake in a hot oven for 25 minutes, or until golden and bubbling.
Fennel and lemon risotto is an Italian classic and an excellent choice for those not partial to strong aniseed flavours. Simply make a basic risotto but add a finely chopped fennel bulb to the onion at the start and lots of finely grated lemon zest to the finished rice just before serving. Garnish with delicate green fennel fronds. Or try cream of fennel soup. Fry chopped fennel gently in butter until completely cooked through – you can add tiny cubes of potato, sliced leek and garlic too, if you fancy. Blitz with good stock – vegetable or chicken both works well – and add a splash to cream, a squeeze of lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Top with chopped fennel fronds and crispy croutons, and serve with fresh bread. Fennel doubters will be won over.
Fennel pairs beautifully with oranges, olives, good extra virgin olive oil, cream, Parmesan cheese, lemon zest and preserved lemons, roast chicken, pork sausages, fish and seafood.
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