Just what is fennel, anyway?

From the Kitchens of Food Network, Fraya Berg

Fraya works at Food Network as a chef and writer.

Possible market appearance of fennel between late winter and early spring Fennel seeds may also be an ingredient in Italian sausage. Fennel, with its multi-layered bulbous base and long fronded stalks, is a vegetable that initially appears daunting and challenging to prepare. In reality, you won't be able to get enough of its distinctive flavor and light, crisp texture. Our goal is to educate people about fennel, so Here, we've compiled everything you might need to know to get started with it.

Fennel is a layered, bulbous vegetable that has been used for centuries. Its origin is the Mediterranean. Fennel's Italian name, finocchio, sounds like Pinocchio and always makes us laugh. Both cooked and raw fennel are delicious additions to a rich main dish. The vegetable, which tastes slightly like licorice, is delicious both raw and cooked.

Fennel comes in two distinct types. Florence fennel is the common name for the vegetable that is used to harvest fennel seeds. One is common fennel, and the other is a type of fennel called vulgare. Fennel pollen is made by grinding the flowers of this variety, which are yellow.

Fennel has a mild anise or licorice flavor that, depending on how it is cooked (or not cooked), can be enhanced or sweetened. Fennel becomes extremely tasty when it is sauteed with onions as a component of a soup or stew. To give your sautéed vegetables a more pronounced fennel flavor, try adding a teaspoon or two of crushed or chopped fennel seed along with the diced fennel. The flavor of fennel is enhanced when sliced and used in a salad with a vinaigrette.

The only similarity between fennel and onions is that both have layers, but this is not a sign of close genetic relatedness. Fennel bulbs are related to carrots, which are their closest botanical relatives. Fennel's feathery fronds resemble those of fresh dill, but the two herbs are unrelated.

Getty Images/panjitpanya

All of the fennel plant is edible, and is used in cooking. All right, let's get the basics out of the way first:

  • Fennel roots, which are tuberous and can be prepared similarly to carrots by peeling and dicing them before cooking, are an excellent source of nutritional value. If you want to thicken a soup with some flavor and bulk, try adding some of these white vegetables that you would normally puree. Worst avoided when eaten raw
  • The bulb is the most substantial part of the plant; it has thick, layered, ribbed leaves, and each leaf produces a stalk. One can peel the bulb into individual leaves, slice it, dice it, or cut it into wedges. You can eat the fennel bulb raw or cooked.
  • Since the stalk is so fibrous, it must be cooked before being consumed. The flavor can be extracted by adding the stalks to a broth or soup and then discarding them.
  • The fronds that emerge from fennel stalks resemble delicate dill in appearance. They add a delicate touch to salads and other dishes when used as a fresh herb.
  • Fennel blossoms as it matures and develops. Dried fennel flowers are sold as a gourmet ingredient known as fennel pollen.
  • Instead of pollen, fennel seeds are harvested from the flowers and used in foods like sweet Italian sausage and finocchio salami.

Most of your fennel usage will involve the bulb. In the market, look for the whitest, firmest bulbs you can find with at least three inches of stalk; this length is important because it prevents the layers of the bulb from drying out too quickly. The point at which the outer leaves are attached to the bulb should not appear spongy. You can keep the bulbs in the fridge for 5 to 7 days if you take the stalks and fronds off and store them in individual plastic bags.

  1. Severing the bulb's stems will allow it to bloom.
  2. With a peeler or paring knife, remove any "rusty" dark brown spots from the bulb's outer layers. Most (if not all) recipes will instruct you to remove the skin before using it. The two outer leaves are the largest and heaviest, so if you remove them you risk losing as much as 35% of your bulb.
  3. The time has come for you to decide how to cut the meat, and chances are, you'll follow the directions on the recipe. When the bulb is softball-sized, cut it in eighths rather than quarters. If the instructions call for slicing, you can use either a horizontal or vertical slicer because the center will keep everything in place. Grilling calls for cored slices no thicker than 1/4 inch. For optimal results when sautéing and serving with pasta or pizza, cut into thin, crosswise slices. Dice the fennel like you would an onion if you're going to use it as an aromatic in a soup or stew. First, cut it in half so that you have two flat pieces with the core holding everything together. And if you're making a salad, a mandoline is your best bet for slicing the ingredients. The fennel needs to be paper-thin so it retains its airy texture. Mandolines are commonly used by professional chefs. You can't call it cheating if...

Fennel's uses are just as extensive as those of more common vegetables like celery, carrots, and onions. Due to its mild flavor and lack of offensive potential, fennel can be used for much longer than any member of the broccoli-cauliflower family.

So add to savory dishes such as soups, stews, pastas, salads, pizzas, and veggie sandwiches topped with roasted peppers, onions, and melted Italian cheeses. Grilled fennel is one of our favorite side dishes. However, if you try to grill fennel until it is completely done, it will become dry and tough. Blanching the fennel in boiling salted water is an easy way to get it halfway done before you throw it on the grill. That way, the fennel will retain its fennel-ness without taking on any of the burnt mystery vegetable flavor that often results from grilling.

The most fascinating ways we've found to use fennel are in fresh fennel candy and fennel syrup. The stalks are cooked in a sugar syrup until tender, at which point they are dried. You can eat them on their own, or use them as a fancy garnish for any dessert featuring other licorice flavors. Since fennel is one of the ingredients in absinthe, the leftover syrup is a favorite of mixologists who want the freshest sweet licorice flavor in their cocktails.

In a salad, celery can stand in for fennel, as has been suggested many times. However, when cooked, celery takes on a fairly assertive, nothing-like-fennel flavor; if you don't like this flavor, too much celery can overpower everything else, leaving you extremely disappointed. The white, thicker part of bok choy has a similar, mild flavor and texture. You can also opt to increase the amount of onion. The onion is for flavor, and the bok choy is for texture. Crushed fennel seed is a great way to add fennel flavor to a cooked dish when you can't find a bulb to use as a substitute.

Grilled Salmon and Polenta with Fennel Salad

The most fancy quick meal we know of only requires a mandoline and a tube of polenta.

A Salad with Pears and Fennel

The fennel in this salad is so tender, it reminds me of butterfly wings. The ripe pear complements everything perfectly.

Chicken and Vegetable Soup with an Italian Flavor

This hearty soup gets its flavor from fennel, but if you can't find fresh fennel, bok choy and a teaspoon of crushed fennel seed are excellent stand-ins.

Fennel and Tomatoes, Roasted

In this roasted side dish, the fennel's natural flavor shines through thanks to a sprinkle of sugar.

A Ragout of Pork and Fennel

This Pork and Fennel Ragout is a hearty stew that benefits greatly from being cooked in a Dutch oven.

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