Produce of the Week - Fennel
sponsored by Coleman Farms
Fennel is a plant that seems at home everywhere, or nowhere. It's been used since ancient times both medicinally - externally as an antagonist to skin parasites and internally as a digestive aid and anti-spasmodic - and as a vegetable, both raw and cooked. It's got a somewhat special place in the pantry (or cellar) since it's in season in the cooler months (and clear through the Winter in climates similar to ours). Despite it's versatility, the similarity of our climate to that of its Mediterranean home, and it's presence in local fields and gardens for probably more than a hundred years, Fennel is likely to be unfamiliar to most Santa Barbara kitchens.
There's may be an image problem to overcome. Fennel looks like a cross between celery and dill, both of which it's closely related to, with a bit of onion thrown in, the color ranging from a green-tinged white at the base changing to a yellow green as one moves up the stalks to the dilly leaves. This color is easy to take in an herb, like dill, but, particularly under the very artificial lighting of a supermarket, can look out of place on an edible. There's also the matter of its reminding those who recognize it of it's half-sibling, wild anise. A bit of anise is o.k. if you like liquorice, but it's daunting to think of consuming it in vegetable-dish quantities, or of its strong liquorice flavor cooperating with anything else.
Never mind the looks: there are stranger things in the vegetable section - celeriac, for example - not to mention in the snack aisle. And while it's true that wild anise has a very strong liquorice flavor, this is much milder in Fennel, further reduced by cooking, and is dominated by the vegetable's sweetness. The flavor is a complex of sweet, a bit of liquorice or anise, elements of dill and citrus which, far from dominating other flavors, serves to contrast and highlight them.
A popular use for raw fennel is in salads. It could be used, chopped fine, in your standard mixed green salad, but the usual treatment seems to be slicing the fennel bulb exceedingly fine (using a mandolin, which is something like a wood plane or a sauerkraut knife; or using a very sharp knife and a fair amount of patience) and mixing it with some of the more bitter salad stuffs, such as mizuna, radicchio or arugula. You might add some lightly toasted walnuts and top with crumbled feta or goat cheese, or maybe some orange or tangarine sections and pine nuts or shaved hard cheese. There's a very simple salad of celery and fennel, both fine sliced, with a lemon and oil dressing. Other salads pair fennel with fruit. There's salad combining the shaved or thin sliced fennel with orange sections (membrane and seeds removed, and the recipie uses blood oranges) and a light dressing of oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, and another combines fine chopped fennel and several varieties of grape. Another puts a layer of thin sliced pears on foil, then a layer of the shaved fennel, then some shavings of Grana padano (or other hard cheese) and a bit of cinnamon or nutmeg, close the foil and bake in a 350°F oven for about ten minutes, serving warm.
Another frequently found recipe uses this fine sliced fennel as a bed for serving equally thin sliced raw fish. There's no need, however, to sacrifice a fish; you could also use the fennel as a base for thin sliced beet, cooked, of course, and either natural or having been 'pickled' by soaking in something acid, which might be a vinegar or could be orange juice with vinegar added to adjust the acidity. This 'carpaccio' will give you a nice contrast in color and in flavor, with the mild slightly anise sweetness of the fennel a foil to the earthy richness of the beet, which is enhanced by the dill element in the fennel. It's a robust combination with a taste spectrum broad enough to accomodate strong cheeses, nuts, olives, smoked fish being eaten along with it.
This sort of breadth is made use of when cooking with fennel. It's no stranger to soups, including some rather imaginative ones, one of which amplifies fennel's suggestion of citrus by combining it with candied orange peel and marmelade. It works well in straightforward vegetable dishes, too. It would be nice sauteed with a green like chard together with onions, where the sweetness of the fennel and onions would work together and set off the acid tang of the chard. Still using a skillet, you could braise some root vegetables, a selection of carrot, parsnip, beet, rutabega, or radicchio (not a root) together with largish sections of fennel, so that the sugars start to caramalize a bit. The same combination can be prepared on the grill or in a baking dish, covered at first and uncovered for the last fifteen minutes or so. Fennel can also be prepared au gratin, more or less by itself or mixed with other vegetables, such as carrot, beet or even potato. Typically, the fennel bulb is quartered and blanched, and the other vegetables cut very fine or parboiled, before being assembled in the baking dish and covered with a white sauce, together with whatever other seasoning might be added, such as garlic or parsley, and spices, then topped with grated cheese.
Fennel sounds perfect for those of you who juice, adding its complex herby sweetness to whatever other melange of flavors you're squeezing out of vegetables and fruit.
More detailed recipes can be found here, here, and here.
Photo courtesy of the Vittles Vamp