Many Italians like to end a big meal with sliced raw fennel, also known as sweet anise, convinced that this crisp vegetable aids their digestion. I can’t vouch for fennel’s medicinal properties, but like many of my fellow Italians, I love its licorice-like flavor and crunchy texture. My parents, who were farmers, did not grow it when I was a child in rural Calabria—the “toe” of the Italian boot—because we lived in the hills, and fennel prefers the cool coast. Yet, I’ve eaten it enthusiastically for as long as I can remember. When I married a Sicilian, I learned even more ways to prepare fennel, as Sicilians are big fans. And in my current northern California home, I have access to fennel year-round, so I eat it in every possible way: raw in salads or as a simple snack, and cooked in a variety of satisfying side dishes.
Enjoy it raw
Fennel & Orange Salad with Red Onion & Olives (Insalata di Finocchi e Arance)
Thin slices of raw fennel give a fresh, cool crunch to green salads—I particularly like it with arugula or baby greens. But one of my favorite winter salads combines thinly sliced fennel with juicy orange segments, red onions, and black olives. It’s light and refreshing, and I love the interplay of crisp, cool, salty, and sweet. I also like to eat strips of raw fennel as a snack, just as Americans reach for carrot or celery sticks.
When using raw fennel, it’s important to slice it thinly. Large chunks of fennel can be fibrous, so I like to cut the bulbs lengthwise into slender slivers or crosswise into thin half moons (see directions below). Fennel will dry a bit after cutting, so if you need to cut it ahead, keep the slices wrapped in damp paper towels. The core is perfectly edible, and you can leave it if you like, but it can be a bit tough. I find that it’s best to remove most or all of it when eating fennel raw.
Cook it almost any way you want
Fennel is so versatile, it lends itself to almost any cooking method. It’s delicious roasted at high temperatures, which turn the edges brown and crisp, or slowly sautéed in a bit of olive oil. But in my opinion, few things beat braised fennel. I slowly braise thick wedges with tomatoes, olives, capers, and a little water, and the results are luxurious: smooth and creamy with a sweet, tangy flavor. I also love the crunchy texture of pan-fried fennel slices. I parboil mine first, so they soften up a bit; then I coat them with egg and fine breadcrumbs and fry them in olive oil until the coating is crisp and golden. And for an Italian twist on a classic potato gratin, I layer thin slices of fennel with potato slices, breadcrumbs, and grated pecorino or Parmigiano.
No matter what method you use, fennel that’s thoroughly cooked (be sure it has plenty of moisture or fat) becomes almost creamy, losing the crunch it has when raw but gaining in sweetness. Even the core becomes tender and mild, so I usually don’t bother removing it when I cook fennel. Besides, it helps hold the wedges together.
Fennel Layered with Potatoes & Breadcrumbs (Tortiera di Finocchi e Patate)
Braised Fennel with Tomato, Green Olives & Capers (Finocchi alla Ghiotta)