Fennel is one of those vegetables that can baffle the uninitiated. What does it taste like? What part do you eat? How do you cook it? These are all questions I’ve been asked as I pick up a bulb of fennel in the supermarket, not only by other shoppers, but by produce managers as well. Part of the problem is mistaken identity: fennel is often labeled as anise. Not only is this wrong—they’re not the same plant—but it also makes people think that fennel has the same very strong licorice flavor as anise. Fennel is actually more delicate, its licorice-like undertones very subtle.
Italians, who seem to universally adore it, enjoy fennel in many ways: breaded and fried; sautéed with garlic; even raw with a drizzle of olive oil. I love the classic salad of thinly sliced raw fennel, fruity olive oil, and shaved Parmesan. But more often I cook fennel to bring out its wonderful sweetness and tenderness. I’ll roast it with garlic and tomatoes to toss with pasta, or I’ll braise it with chicken stock until it’s meltingly tender and then top it with Parmesan. Fennel is also delicious grilled or sautéed to keep some of its crunch.
Buy firm fennel, stalks intact
Choose large, firm bulbs of fennel. If the bulb has its finger-like stalks and feathery leaves still attached, all the better. Uncut fennel has more flavor, and you can use the stalks and leaves as flavorings. I use the stalks in vegetable stocks or to make a “rack” for roasting fish. I use the leaves as I use fresh dill—to perfume sauces, sautés, or salads, or to snip them on a finished dish as a garnish.
Rounded bulbs tend to be sweeter than the more flattened, elongated ones, and their licorice flavor is a little less pronounced—a plus for some people and a minus for others. Pale fennel (more ivory than green) is often sweeter and less fibrous than dark. Check to see that there are no brown or soft spots and that the stalks aren’t dried out or limp. Fennel keeps well in a plastic bag in the vegetable crisper for a few days.
Fennel needs a trim before cooking. Fennel can seem unwieldy to work with at first, especially if you buy it with the stalks intact. Once you cut off the stalks (slice them close to the bulb), you’ll find you have a more manageable vegetable.
Though some cooks automatically remove the outermost layer of fennel, I find that needlessly wasteful, especially if I’m cooking the fennel rather than using it raw. After rinsing the bulb under cold water, I simply peel the stringy fibers off the outer layer with a potato peeler or a sharp paring knife. If you do need to remove the outer layer because it’s particularly fibrous or discolored, make a shallow horizontal slit along the base of the bulb and peel the layer away.
When braising, grilling, or roasting fennel, I usually cut the bulb in half and then into four to eight wedges. I leave the core intact so that the layers of each piece remain attached. When I want to make thin slices to toss with pasta or to use raw in a salad, I core the wedges and cut them into half-moon slices. You can also chop fennel, much as you would an onion, when using it as part of an aromatic vegetable base for stuffings, stews, and soups.