Fennel On My Mind

Did you like licorice as a child? I didn't and when I see Twizzlers in the candy section I wonder who on earth buys this candy? Because fennel's aromatic taste is strikingly reminiscent of licorice/anise I have avoided experimenting with it in my cooking always figuring I would dislike the flavor. However, everyone except me seems to be using fennel in their salads, as a side vegetable, in gratins along with potatoes and even with fruit for dessert. I have an Italian friend who said, and I quote: "We Italians LOVE our fennel! It was on every dessert table along with pastries." Everywhere I turn, I see fennel listed in ingredient lists. I see it used on the Food Network. I see it used in recipes in magazines and newspapers. I decided to put my licorice prejudice aside and find out what this love affair with fennel is all about.

For one thing I learned anise and "sweet anise" are two very different things. Anise is a pungent pint-sized herb, while "sweet anise" — or fennel — is a hearty vegetable with a thick, bulbous base and celery-like stems that grow upward to 5 feet tall. It has a sweeter, more delicate flavor than anise and its texture is similar to that of celery, having a crunchy and striated texture. Need I say it is also loaded with vitamins and antioxidants and everything that is good for you. Oddly enough, it is also supposed to ward off fleas in kennels and stables (Hmmmm. Sometimes there is too much information!) And in Medieval times, to ward off evil.

How to buy and store fennel? First of all, it is readily available everywhere. Good quality fennel will have bulbs that are clean, firm and solid, without signs of splitting, bruising or spotting. The bulbs should be whitish or pale green in color. The stalks should be relatively straight and tight around the bulb. Both the stalks and the leaves should be green in color. There should be no signs of flowering buds as this indicates that the vegetable is past maturity. Despite rumors to the contrary, there is no distinction between male and female fennel. The rule to remember is: choose a bulb that is firm, round and fat over one that is elongated and flat. Store fresh fennel in the refrigerator crisper, where it should keep fresh for about four days. It is best to consume fennel soon after purchase since as it ages, it tends to gradually lose its flavor.

Fennel is a versatile vegetable that plays an important role in the food culture of many European nations, especially in France and Italy. It appears that fennel's strength may be its ability to blend and enhance other flavors. In other words, tuna tastes more tuna-like when cooked with fennel. Just about any salad has more zing with the addition of crunchy, raw fennel. Grilled fish becomes symbolic of Mediterranean cuisine when stuffed with lemon slices and fennel fronds.

Well, OK. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. So I pulled out some recipes and tried them; I am now completely won over. I'm even going to experiment with other recipes. Please don't let your dislike of anything licorice stop you from trying the following recipes. The taste is milder than you would expect and I tried it in both a fresh salad and roasted in the oven, which has turned out to be my favorite way to serve fennel and oh so simple to make. Remember my Italian friend said it was always served with dessert- as a digestive. If you like ice cream and have a churn, don't hesitate to make the fennel ice cream. It is extremely mild and what a surprise and treat to serve your guests along with an apple or pear crisp. Better yet, look up a recipe for pear clafouti. Fennel ice cream would be perfect with that.

Fennel Salad with Avocado
Adapted from Lyon in the Kitchen, Nathan Lyon
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 apple, thinly sliced
1 large ripe avocado, seeded and diced
2 cups baby spinach or mache (lamb's lettuce)
1 tablespoon plus a splash sherry vinegar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1/4 cup crushed toasted pecans
1/2 cup cherry/teardrop tomatoes, halved
Parmigiano-Reggiano, shaved, for the top
In a large bowl, combine sherry vinegar with salt and pepper and whisk in 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil until it thickens. Cut fennel in half and then lengthwise into very thin slices. (use a mandoline if you have one.) Add fennel, shallots, tomatoes, avocado, apple, and pecans. Season and toss. Add some baby spinach or mache. Serve on a plate with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and cheese slices.

Roasted Fennel
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten

2 large fennel bulbs
1/4 cup good olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Parmesan shavings

Preheat the oven to 375°.
Cut off the stems of the fennel and slice the bulb in half lengthwise. Slice the bulb vertically into 1/2-inch-thick slices, cutting right through the core.
Coat a baking sheet with olive oil. Spread the fennel slices out on the baking sheet, sprinkle them with olive oil, salt, and pepper.
Roast the fennel slices for about 45 minutes to an hour, checking first at 40 minutes. The edges should be crisp and brown. Remove from the oven and cover with Parmesan shavings.

Fennel Ice Cream
Gourmet Magazine, October, 2007

1 2/3 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons fennel seeds, crushed
1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup sugar, divided
4 large egg yolks

Bring cream and fennel seeds just to a simmer in a small heavy saucepan, then cover and let steep about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring milk, 1/2 cup sugar, and a pinch of salt to a simmer in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring.
Whisk together yolks and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a large bowl, then add milk mixture in a slow stream, whisking. Return mixture to medium saucepan and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until mixture coats back of spoon and registers 175°F on an instant-read thermometer (do not let boil). Immediately strain custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a metal bowl, then quick-chill by setting bowl in an ice bath and stirring occasionally until cool, about 15 minutes.
Serve with pear crisp or pear clafouti.

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