Revered in Italy, fennel is still largely unappreciated in America. What a shame! This sweet, aromatic vegetable with its pale green, celery-like stalks, broad bulbous base, and bright green, feathery fronds, is incredibly versatile, juicy, and delicious.
Although its texture may resemble celery, fennel’s distinctive flavor and aroma set it apart. The main variety cultivated throughout the Mediterranean and in this country is called Florence fennel (finocchio). At the market, it is sometimes mislabeled “anise” or “sweet anise,” which keeps many people who don’t like the flavor of licorice from giving this vegetable a try. Fennel is actually much sweeter and more delicate than anise, with a whispery anise fragrance but none of its sharp licorice taste. Once fennel is cooked, this flavor is even lighter and more elusive than when it’s raw.
How to select and store fennel
Select large, squat, glossy bulbs with a pale green tint and no cracks, bruises or discoloration.
It seems counterintuitive, but larger fennel bulbs are often more tender than long, slender ones.
If possible, buy fennel with its stalks and fronds attached. The graceful greenery — which should be a bright, vibrant green — is a good indicator of freshness. At home, refrigerate unwashed fennel in a plastic bag for up to 5 days.
Tips for using fennel
All parts of the fennel plant are edible: stalks, fronds, seeds, pollen, and of course the prized bulb. The bulb is made up of overlapping onion-like layers surrounding a dense, sweet heart.
Fennel is easy to prepare; it’s delicious raw or cooked, and its singular flavor goes with everything. Raw fennel is crisp and crunchy with a refreshing, clean flavor; it’s terrific in salads. Slow-cooked fennel has a mellow flavor and a luscious, meltingly soft texture. In Tuscany, fennel is the quintessential companion to pork in all its many guises, especially sausages. It has a wonderful affinity for citrus, fish, Parmigiano or Pecorino cheeses, olives, capers and peppery greens like watercress and radicchio.
To prepare fennel, wash with cold water. Cut off the feathery fronds and tubular stalks; the greenery can be used as a garnish or snipped like dill and added as a last-minute flavor enhancer. Trim the base and remove any discolored layers. Discard the stalks or use them in soups and stocks or in place of diced celery. Reserve the fronds for garnish. Usually the outer layer of the bulb should be discarded, too, as it can be stringy and tough (but good for stock).
Cut the bulb in half lengthwise. If there’s a large core at the base, remove it with a small paring knife. Cut the fennel into wedges through the core end or cut crosswise into thin slices. Fennel can also be shaved into paper-thin slices with a mandoline or vegetable peeler.
Why choose organic fennel?
Choose organic whenever you can to help keep the residues of conventional agricultural pesticides and fertilizers out of your food. At Earthbound Farm, our fennel is grown without toxic synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, using sustainable farming methods that protect the environment and help keep pesticides out of our soil, air, water and food supply. Organic food is the healthiest choice for people and the planet — and we think organic tastes better, too!