Fennel has a split personality. Raw, it’s got wonderful crunch and a cool flavor laced with anise. But when it’s braised, roasted, fried, baked, or grilled, fennel reveals its other side: It gets soft—even silky—and its licorice flavor melts away to just a hint of its raw self.
There are two forms of edible fennel. One is strictly an herb whose leaves, stalks, and seeds are used as flavorings; the other—often called Florence fennel—is the vegetable we find in the market.
We refer to fennel “bulbs,” but that swollen portion is really the thickened, succulent stem of the plant growing in tight layers above the ground. Fennel thrives in cool weather; its seasons are spring and fall, though as with many vegetables, it’s usually available year-around. Grocers sometimes label fennel as anise, a misnomer.
Fennel is a natural partner for fish and shellfish, particularly shrimp and scallops, but it’s also very good with pork, chicken, lamb, beef, and duck. It pairs well with onions, leeks, tomatoes, artichokes, and potatoes. As for seasonings, take a cue from fennel’s region of origin, the Mediterranean. Olives and olive oil, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, saffron, anchovies, and the anise-flavored liquor called pastis are good matches.
Easy ways with fennel
Make a fennel gratin by layering blanched fennel slices in a gratin dish with tomato sauce or cream. Top either version with fresh breadcrumbs tossed with olive oil and grated Parmesan and bake until tender and bubbly.
Parboil fennel wedges, set on a broiler tray, top with butter and grated Parmesan, and broil until browned and bubbly.
Grill blanched wedges of fennel, drizzle with balsamic vinegar, and serve as a side dish or add to a pasta or salad.
Make a salad of thinly sliced fennel, arugula, apples, and shaved Parmesan or Dry Jack cheese. Toss with an anchovy- spiked vinaigrette.
Cook thin slivers of fennel slowly in oil until caramelized and serve as a side dish or as a topping for crostini or pizza.
Fry fennel. Dip thinly sliced fennel in lightly whisked egg whites, dredge in seasoned flour or cornmeal, and fry. Sprinkle with salt and lemon juice and eat while hot.
How to trim and cut fennel for any dish
To prep fennel, I trim off and discard the stalks and fully expanded leaves, or save them to use in stocks. I often save the dense, tight, baby leaves for mincing and garnishing the finished dish. If the outer layer of the bulb is in good shape and isn’t too fibrous, I use it; otherwise, I break it off and feed it to my rabbit. I carefully trim off a thin slice of the root end, leaving the rest of the core intact to hold together wedges or vertical slices (top two photos at right). For diced or slivered fennel, I’ll cut the bulb lengthwise in half or quarters, and then cut away the dense inner core.
Fennel as a supporting player
- When making risotto, add diced fennel along with leeks or onions to the pot before adding the rice.
- Boil fennel slices until tender, purée them, and then fold them into mashed potatoes.
- Tuck thin slices of fennel and lemon inside whole fish before roasting or grilling.
- Put fennel wedges in the roasting pan alongside chicken or pork, or set the meat on a bed of thinly sliced fennel.
- Simmer diced fennel and tomatoes together for a flavorful base for fish chowder or vegetable soup.
- Add thinly sliced fennel to your favorite lemon-Dijon vinaigrette and let sit for 20 minutes so the fennel softens somewhat. Use to dress a salad or as a sauce for salmon.
- Add fennel to leek and potato soup for another dimension of flavor.
- Simmer diced or slivered fennel with white beans, or with chickpeas and tomatoes. Drain, season with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper, and serve as a warm or room-temperature salad.
in the garden
Fennel likes spring and fall’s shorter days and cooler temperatures. To prevent bolting in the long, hot days of summer, time spring fennel plantings to be mature by mid-June, before the summer solstice. In regions with long growing seasons, fall is an excellent time to grow fennel. If fennel does go to flower in your garden, let the seeds mature, harvest them when they’ve turned brown and dry, and use them in spice mixes to flavor meats, soups, pickles, and vinaigrettes.