It’s a rarity in the kitchen: a vegetable that’s sweet.
But that’s just part of the allure of fennel, a Mediterranean staple that’s finally catching on with American cooks and diners.
“One of the main things I like about fennel is its versatility and the way its flavor changes from raw to cooked,” said award-winning author Georgeanne Brennan, whose cookbook “La Vie Rustic: Cooking and Living in the French Style” (Weldon Owen, 290 pages, $35) features four fennel recipes.
“Raw, it’s crunchy and definitely has a licoricelike flavor, which is wonderful with things like anchovies and Parmesan cheese,” Brennan said. “I like to julienne it, toss it with an anchovy- and Parmesan-laden vinaigrette, or to thinly slice and chop it to add to any salad.”
While fennel’s licorice taste can be rather pronounced (sometimes overpowering) when eaten raw, it blends in with other ingredients when cooked.
“Cooked, the flavor mellows to a pleasant hint of anise,” Brennan added, “and the fennel becomes meltingly soft.”
Despite this vegetable’s centuries of use in Europe, fennel fear seems common among American cooks. Several food bloggers — from Serious Eats to My Kitchen Harvest — have written about their personal experience with fennel phobia.
Some eaters can’t get past fennel’s licorice scent and flavor. It reminds them of Good & Plenty candy.
Those who have discovered fennel’s flair gravitate to this unusual veggie, which looks like pale celery wearing a wispy bright green wig.
“I love everything about fennel!” said Elise Bauer, creator of the popular food blog and website SimplyRecipes.com. “Braised, roasted, or raw in salads. It’s especially good paired with fish, either in a side slaw or cooked with the fish. It’s also exceptional with Parmesan, either in a shaved fennel and Parmesan salad or baked in a gratin with a Parmesan topping.”
The whole fennel plant is edible, from its the bulbous base to its feathery leaves. Fennel seed may be among the most Italian of spices.
“Fennel seed is the seasoning that makes Italian sausage taste like Italian sausage,” Bauer said. “So, if you want ground pork to taste like Italian sausage, just add some fennel seeds to it.”
Fennel pairs particularly well with other strong-flavored ingredients such as fish, citrus and cheese.
“One of my favorites is fennel gratin with tomato,” Brennan said. “Thin slices of fennel — cut lengthwise — gently sauteed in olive oil with garlic and seasonings, then layered in a baking dish, topped with fresh tomato sauce, then sprinkled with a gremolata (finely chopped lemon zest, parsley and garlic) and baked.”
Salmon With Fennel Baked in Parchment
This recipe ranks among Elise Bauer’s fennel favorites on her website, SimplyRecipes.com, which also features a video on how to wrap fish in parchment for baking. Dry white wine may be substituted for the lemon juice.
Four 12-by-18-inch pieces of parchment paper or aluminum foil
1 fennel bulb, sliced paper thin
Four 6-ounce portions of fresh salmon fillets (skinless is best)
Lemon juice (to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper
12 very thin slices of whole lemon (from 1 to 2 lemons)
Several sprigs of fresh fennel fronds
2 tablespoons butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Lay down a square of parchment paper or foil on a flat surface. Fold the parchment in half to create a crease, then open it up again.
Below the crease of the parchment paper, place several slices of fennel bulb in a mound, and sprinkle with salt. Place one fillet of salmon on top of the fennel bulb slices. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over the salmon (anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon, or to taste). Sprinkle the salmon generously with salt and pepper.
Lay sprigs of fennel fronds over the salmon. Lay 3 thin slices of lemon over the fennel fronds and salmon (more if you want). Dot the top with butter.
Fold the parchment over the salmon and secure close. There are several ways that you can accomplish this. One easy and particularly attractive way is to fold a corner near the folded edge of the parchment paper into a triangle. Then about halfway down that triangle, fold another triangle over the previous triangle.
Working down and around the parchment edges, you can create folds all around the edges. When you come to the last folded edge, tuck the corner under the parchment.
Place on a roasting pan or baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.
Serve immediately. To serve, you can either carefully transfer each salmon fillet and mound of fennel slices to individual plates, or you can serve the salmon in the pouch itself, on a plate.
To eat, you can either unwrap the pouch, or cut through the top with a sharp knife to expose the salmon inside.
Baked Fennel With Parmesan and Thyme
Prep time: 20 minutes, Cook time: 20 minutes. Serves 6
A savory side dish for roasted chicken, pork or fish. Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart.
3 fennel bulbs, trimmed and split lengthwise
1 tablespoon softened butter, plus more for baking dish
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
4 sprigs thyme
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place fennel bulbs in a medium saucepan and just cover with water. Bring water to a boil, then continue to boil bulbs 15 minutes or until tender. Drain fennel, cut side down, on paper towels, for a few minutes.
Place bulbs, cut side up, in a buttered 8-inch baking dish; brush them with the 1 tablespoon softened butter.
Season to taste with the salt and pepper, then top with 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese and the thyme sprigs.
Bake until the cheese is golden, about 20 minutes.
Sicilian-style Citrus Salad
Total time: 30 minutes. Serves 6. Recipe from the New York Times.
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
2 navel oranges
4 blood oranges
2 Cara Cara oranges
1 small grapefruit
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced
1 small fennel bulb, very thinly sliced, enough to make 1 cup
2 or 3 tender inside celery stalks, thinly sliced at an angle
Handful of olives, black oil cured type or green Castelvetrano type, pitted
Winter salad leaves, such as radicchio or escarole, optional
Large pinch of flaky sea salt
Make the vinaigrette: Whisk together olive oil and vinegar in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. It should be tart but not over-vinegary. Taste and add a little more olive oil if necessary.
To peel the citrus fruit, use a small serrated knife. First, cut off a thin slice of peel from the top and bottom of the orange, so it can sit flat and securely on the cutting board. Use a sawing motion to take off the peel, cutting from top to bottom, following the curve of the fruit. Remove only the peel and white pith, not the flesh of the orange. It should now be perfectly spherical and naked. Peel remaining oranges and grapefruit in this fashion.
Carefully slice peeled citrus crosswise. Arrange slices on a large serving platter in a random pattern, letting them overlap a bit here and there. Scatter onion, fennel and celery over top. Dot the surface with olives. Surround with salad leaves, if using.
Whisk vinaigrette, and spoon evenly over the salad. Sprinkle lightly with flaky salt and serve.
Fennel and Onion Soup
Total time: 2 hours, 25 minutes. Serves 4 to 6. Recipe from the Los Angeles Times.
2 fennel bulbs (11/2 pounds)
2 large onions (11/2 pounds)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup light dry white wine
9 cups light vegetable stock
2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
2 tablespoons Armagnac, optional
Trim the feathery fronds and stems from the fennel bulbs. Chop 1 tablespoon of the fronds and reserve. Cut the bulbs in half lengthwise and remove the cores. Thinly slice on a mandoline.
Peel the onions, then very thinly slice on a mandoline.
Heat the oil in a heavy 51/2 -quart sauce pot and saute the fennel, onions and sugar over high heat for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the vegetables are very tender and lightly browned, 30 to 40 minutes.
Add the wine and simmer 1 to 2 minutes or until the wine is almost evaporated. Add the vegetable stock and salt. Cover and simmer 20 minutes to blend flavors.
Add the Armagnac, if using, and simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes. Stir in the reserved chopped fennel fronds. Season to taste with salt. Serve the soup with the garlic toasts on the side.