A few years ago, I had a meal at a restaurant which listed “seasonal vegetables” as the side dish. One of the veggies I got was totally unfamiliar to me. It was white with a texture between an onion and a turnip, and it tasted deliciously like fennel – that is to say, something like a cross between anise and celery. It turned out it was fennel, and so I decided to learn how to cook fennel at home.
I had never realized the fennel plant had three edible components: the feathery leaves people dry and use as seasoning, stalks you can chop and use like celery, and a bulb big enough to serve as a side dish. This is one of those rare dishes that tastes fantastic raw or steamed. It’s full of vitamins and minerals, low calorie, and you don’t need to smother it in sauce to enjoy it. And the price is moderate: served as a side dish, it costs about the same as broccoli or cauliflower, but since you can use the entire fennel plant, it ends up being even more economical.
Choosing and storing good fennel
At the market, it’s sometimes labeled “fennel” and sometime “anise” even though they’re definitely two separate plants. It’s also sometimes called “finnochio.” Whatever your market calls it, once you’ve found it, here’s what you’re looking for: the whitest (or whitish-green) bulbs with long stalks and feathery tops. The tops should look bright green – avoid yellow in any part of the plant, because that means it’s getting past its prime. Once you get it home, take off the stalks, wrap them and the bulb separately and put everything in the veggie crisper in your fridge. (You don’t really have to remove the stalks, but it’ll wrap up more airtight if you do.)
You can eat every part of this plant. I’ll start with the bulb.
Prepping a fennel bulb is simple: just cut off the base and stalks, and wash it. (But don’t throw away the stalks!) You can immediately cut it up and serve it raw in a salad or on sandwiches or by itself as a snack. I find the less you cook it, the better it tastes, and raw is delicious. My personal favorite way to cook it is steamed 12-15 minutes because this really preserves the raw flavor. You can also boil it for no more than ten minutes. I don’t even add a touch of salt or pepper – I love it just the way it is. You might like to butter it, too. I prefer it without butter, but it’s good either way. You can also bake it with a cream or cheese sauce.
You can also grill it with olive oil or saute it in butter (with onions or garlic, if you like). Cut it up much the way you would an onion. Optional seasonings include: salt, pepper, basil, saffron, garlic, terragon, cloves, bay leaf or chives. You can squeeze some lemon or lime onto it, too. Roast it with seafood or chicken. Fennel is absolutely perfect with seafood as either a side dish or cooked in with the meat.
The stalks and the feathery bits
Aside from the base, every bit of this plant is edible, and all its parts taste roughly the same. The general trick is to think of the stalks as celery and the feathery tops as dill. While fennel doesn’t taste that much like dill, it usually works in the same recipes.
The feathery bits are good for sprinkling: on top of meat or other veggies, in soup, on a salad, on a pizza, or even on a cooked piece of fennel bulb. You can also mix it into dips and sauces. The stalks are also good chopped up and added to stocks, soups or stews. You don’t have to get fancy, because even just adding chopped fennel stocks to a can of store-bought potato soup makes an amazing treat.
Serving suggestion: make my Red Sockeye Salmon salad. Chop fennel bulb and add it in raw. Or chop up the feathery greens and sprinkle them over the dressing.
You buy fennel seeds separately from the bulb plants. They’re also delicious (a little sharper in flavor than the plant) and full of nutrition.
Health benefits of fennel
In any form, fennel is low calorie and surprisingly nutritious – even for a veggie. It has a lot of vitamin C, potassium, manganese and fiber, and is good for settling a nauseous stomach or soothing irritable bowels (bloating and gas). It tastes indulgent even though it’s nutritous and delicious.
Fennel is one seriously versatile food item. While you can’t beat it raw or steamed, there’s limitless potential for using it in various recipes.
- Roasted fennel. Roasting brings out a sort of nutty flavor.
- Fennel au gratin with citrus crust. Fennel, tomatoes, garlic, parmesan, orange and lemon.
- Grilled trout in juniper-fennel paste. Juniper and fennel were made for each other.
- Filet mignons with orange fennel crust. Fennel seeds, orange zest, filets…
- AllRecipes has a top 20 fennel recipes list that includes items like a Red Pepper and Fennel Bulb Salad with Asian dressing, Fennel Cucumber Salsa and Baked Fennel with Parmesan. (Told you it was versatile!)