Focus on Fennel

by Dave on October 15, 2009

by Andy Meddick

Fennel is popular in Europe and until recently was found primarily in specialty Italian markets in the USA. You may find fennel in conventional supermarkets, but frequently sold incorrectly as sweet anise. Fennel is grown primarily in Italy, France, Greece, and now, the USA (grown commercially mainly in California). Fennel season is September – May, but can grow year round in many microclimates. There are many varieties. The only variety worth its salt is the Florence, which has a squat bulb, with a subtle licorice flavor. Wild, or Herb Fennel is spindlier, being grown for seed for use in seasonings.

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Fennel – eaten in Europe since Greek & Roman times

Fennel ranges in size from ½ lb to 2 lb, with the smaller fennel bulbs being more tender and less fibrous than larger bulbs. Chopped, 1 medium bulb equates to 2 cups. The bulb has most of the usable vegetable, and should be firm, clean creamy-white, without brown spots, yellowing, splitting, or withering. The stalks should be straight and the leaves a feathery green. Avoid fennel with flowers on the stalks because this is a sign that the fennel is over mature. Store fennel in a plastic bag, in the high-humidity crisper section of the refrigerator for no more than three to four days. Fennel loses its flavor quickly so use it as soon as possible.

Fennel is high in vitamins A and E, calcium and potassium. Fennel and ginger make a good digestive tea (steep the fresh leaves with a bit of sliced ginger for 5 minutes in boiling water). Fennel can be used to sweeten less than sweet breath! Fennel is used in juicing as a detoxifier and a diuretic.

Learn the produce delivery schedules of your market and buy fennel as soon as it comes in. Why? As fennel ages, the feathery stalks wither. The Produce Manager frequently removes the stalks, just selling the bulbs. At G4U Market, for example, our produce vendors deliver Fridays and Mondays.

Remove fennel stalks before prepping the bulb, but do not discard. Chefs use the stalks in soups and stews to add flavor, and use the feathery leaves as an herb, similar to parsley. The leaves are particularly good with baked fish. You can also wet the fronds and stalks and place on the grill instead of wood chips. They also lend excellent flavor to poultry, pork, and lamb.

Remove the stalks, and slice off the top and bottom of the fennel bulb. The outermost layer of the bulb should be removed if the bulb is large

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or the skin is bruised or split. Slice the trimmed bulb in half lengthwise, cutting the halves into wedges for braising, or thin crescents for salads. The halves can also be diced as you would an onion or celery stalk. In fact fennel can be used wherever you would use celery, even raw as crudités. Another simple method is to slice raw fennel bulbs and serve with a good blue cheese such as Mountain Gorgonzola, or a decent goat cheese such as Bucheron du Chevre. I love fennel sliced very thinly, served with orange, sweet red onions, and a sherry vinegar, or lemon juice, in a simple field green salad.

Here are more tips for prepping fennel:

* Braise: place fennel slices, or halved or quartered bulbs, in a saucepan. Add just enough boiling liquid (broth, tomato sauce, vermouth or sherry diluted 1-to-1 with water) to barely cover the vegetable. Add lemon zest, garlic, or onion. Simmer uncovered, turning occasionally, until the fennel is tender, adding more liquid if necessary. Serve hot, warm, or chilled. Cooking time:  25 to 40 minutes.
* Bake: first braise the fennel for 5 minutes. Transfer to a baking dish and add ½ cup of the cooking liquid. Cover and bake at 350F until tender and beginning to brown. Uncover toward the end to allow any excess liquid to evaporate. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese, and brown under the broiler before serving. Cooking time: 1 hour.
* Sauté: cut into slivers and heat in a small amount of stock, tossing and stirring frequently. Sprinkle with lemon juice and zest to finish. Cooking time: 10 to 15 minutes.
* Steam:  place whole or halved bulbs in a vegetable steamer and cook over boiling water until crisp-tender. Cover with your favorite sauce, or marinate in vinaigrette, chill, and serve as a salad.  Cooking time: 20 to 30 minutes.

Click for here some easy recipes for fennel. If you have not tried fennel, what are you waiting for? As my Mother says, “You don’t know what you’re missing!”

Until next time Treehuggers, remember, hugs not drugs. Andy for Good For You Market.

This column first appeared in Coastal Sussex Weekly, August 6, 2009.

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