A crunchy, sweet, aromatic herb, fennel grows wild—along fence posts, riverbeds, and even between the cracks in city sidewalks—perfuming the landscape and enlivening our palates. Diners unfamiliar with fennel are quick to dismiss it, citing a dislike of the sharp bite of licorice flavor. While a close relative of anise, Florence fennel (the one with the big bulbs) has a more complex, sweeter taste, and each part of the plant brings a unique taste and quality to your cooking. The fronds are light and dilly, the stalks fibrous and crunchy like celery, the bulb sweet, sharp, and snappy, and the seeds earthy. Even the pollen is a delicacy in Tuscan cooking.
A crunchy, sweet, aromatic herb, fennel grows wild—along fence posts, riverbeds, and even between the cracks in city sidewalks—perfuming the landscape and enlivening our palates.
Fennel has numerous health benefits, too. High in folic acid, vitamin C, potassium, and dietary fiber, it lowers the risk of heart attacks, boosts the immune system, and reduces inflammation. You’ll often see toasted fennel seeds in a bowl by the entrance of Indian restaurants; grab a handful—they’re great for your digestion and they freshen your breath.
Fennel and Apple Salad
Thinly slice one decently sized fennel bulb and julienne a crisp apple (a Granny Smith works well). Cut the stalks of the fennel thinly, on the diagonal, and chop a handful of the fennel fronds as well. Toss it all together with a splash of extra-virgin olive oil, a drizzle of apple cider vinegar, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a dash of sugar. Add sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. This salad provides the basis for improvising. Try tossing in any of the following: avocado, red onion, sections of tiny Clementine oranges, oil-cured black olives, or toasted almonds.
Grilled Fennel with Balsamic Syrup
Remove the stalks and fronds and cut one fennel bulb into four sections, trimming away some of the core until there’s just enough to hold each section together. Rub each piece with olive oil and salt and pepper and cook on an outdoor grill (or under the broiler) for 5 to 8 minutes a side. For the syrup: combine 1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar and 4 tablespoons of honey and cook on low heat in a sauté pan until the mixture coats the back of a spoon (watch that it doesn’t get too thick). Drizzle some balsamic syrup onto the grilled fennel and serve as a side.
Cut two fennel bulbs into small sections (say 10 for a good-sized bulb). Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil to medium-high in a heavy skillet and add the fennel. Brown for 10 minutes, add some sliced red onion, and cook for another 10 minutes or so, adding some chilis (jalapeño or serrano) at the last minute. Toss this with some al dente pasta, chopped parsley, and salt and pepper. Try adding: sautéed bread crumbs, grated pecorino Romano, and a little garlic confit oil to the pasta.
Roughly chop and sauté an onion and a few garlic cloves in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil for 10 minutes or so, until they are soft and slightly caramelized; add a cored and quartered fennel bulb and any other root veggies you like—celery root, potatoes, turnips. Sauté for another 5 minutes, and then add vegetable stock to cover. Cook until the veggies are tender; season with fennel salt, a dash of paprika, and lots of black pepper. Whirl in a blender until smooth, then adjust the seasonings to taste.
To make fennel salt, toast fennel seeds, grind them up, and add sea salt, using three parts salt and one part seeds.