By: Cynthia David
Published in the Toronto Star March 22, 2013
With its frothy green fronds and shapely body, fennel is the coquette of vegetables. Bite into the crisp white bulb, however, and its deep licorice flavour may knock your socks off.
If you don’t like black licorice, chances are you won’t be serving this Mediterranean favourite raw in salads any time soon. But don’t dismiss it completely. When cooked, fennel mellows to a delicate sweetness, while its texture transforms from crunchy to meltingly tender.
Fennel’s curves may also scare away cooks who prefer their vegetables cut in straight lines or perfect circles. That’s not going to happen with these curved layers, wrapped tightly around a V-shaped core.
Or perhaps it’s V for versatile. Fennel perfumes mussels or seafood chowder, makes a fragrant bed under whole fish or smoked salmon and adds crunch to vegetable or grain salads. Throw it into your next pan of roasted vegetables, make soup or cook fennel wedges in broth for a scrumptious Easter side dish or vegetarian main.
To heighten fennel’s licorice flavour, add fennel seeds or a splash of Pernod liqueur. Crush the seeds with salt and pepper to coat a pork roast or infuse in boiling water for licorice tea.
•Fennel is often mistakenly sold as anise. It’s available year-round but traditionally used from October to April. Most comes from California, where Italian immigrants planted their beloved finocchio for export under brand names such as Andy Boy.
•Choose smooth, pearly-white bulbs, preferably with fronds attached.
•If the thick outer layer is damaged, try removing the brown patches with a vegetable peeler before removing the whole layer, which may be half your bulb!
•Refrigerate bulb in plastic up to a week but use as soon as possible. Store tops separately.
SLICE AND DICE
•Since fennel can be rather expensive, use as much of it as you can.
•First, chop off the fronds, stalks and a thin layer off the bottom of the bulb.
•Save the licorice-scented fronds and chop over salads or cooked dishes like an herb. Or use to stuff a roast chicken or fish.
•Most people throw out the hollow green stalks, but you can slice them thin and use instead of celery, or add them to fish broth for flavour then discard.
•If you have a mandolin or a slicer on your food processor, slice the fennel bulb in half lengthwise, remove the core with the tip of your knife and slice paper-thin for salads.
•Wedges are easy to prepare for cooking. If your bulb is small, simply cut in quarters. Cut larger bulbs in half lengthwise and cut in wedges as narrow or wide as you like. Remove most of the core but not all to keep layers together.
•To slice for cooking, place the bulb cut-side down. Slicing lengthwise gives you thick fennel fingers attached to a bit of core for grilling or braising. For pretty curved sticks, remove the entire core and slice horizontally.
Fennel’s licorice flavour is a salad favourite. In the Mediterranean, fennel, orange and olives make a spectacular combination. Slice with apples and walnuts in a Waldorf, or pair with cooked beets and toss in a citrusy vinaigrette.
For a side dish, cut bulb into 8-12 wedges, depending on size. Arrange snugly side by side in a greased baking dish and add chicken or vegetable broth to about three-quarters of the way up the sides. Grate parmesan over top. Bake at 375F about 40 minutes or until tender and pierced easily with a skewer. Season with salt and pepper to taste and spoon the broth over each serving.
Toss fennel wedges or thick slices with olive oil and grill 10 to 15 minutes a side, or until tender and golden.
Penne with Fennel and Sausage
Cooked fennel adds its soft licorice flavour to this easy and satisfying pasta dish. I used two hot and two mild sausages, both made with fennel seeds for extra licorice flavour. Reserve the fronds for garnish.
2 tbsp (25 mL) extra virgin olive oil
1 lb. (454 g) sweet or hot Italian sausages, casings removed
1 large or 2 small fennel bulbs, halved, cored and sliced horizontally
1 small onion, diced
28 oz. (796 mL) can Italian plum tomatoes with juice
1/4 cup (60 mL) white or red wine
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
454 g package penne rigate (ridged) or other short pasta
Freshly grated parmesan cheese
In large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add sausage and sauté, breaking up with a spoon, until meat loses its pink colour, about 6 minutes. Remove from saucepan with a slotted spoon and keep warm.
Add sliced fennel and onion to pan and sauté until fennel is tender-crisp, about 5 minutes. Stir in cooked sausage meat, tomatoes with juice, wine and garlic. Add salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low and simmer while you cook the pasta.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook according to package instructions until al dente. Drain well, reserving 1/2 cup (125 mL) of pasta cooking water.
Add pasta to sauce and mix well. Add reserved cooking water as needed if pasta seems dry. Garnish each serving with chopped fennel fronds and pass the Parmigiano!
Makes 6 servings.
Star-tested by Cynthia David
Every other Friday, Fresh Bites helps you tantalize your taste buds with out-of-the-ordinary produce.