Get to know this rock star of the vegetable kingdom and bid a fond farewell to boring meals.
There’s a lot to love about fennel. Raw it gives salads, slaws, and pickle plates a refreshing crunch similar to celery but with a much sexier flavor; cooked it becomes even more alluring, adding a note of sophistication to braised, broiled, grilled, or boiled and puréed. The chameleon-like nature of fennel, which can take center stage in a simple yet elegant gratin or turn demure in a supporting role as a bed for grilled seafood, makes it an MVP in any well-stocked vegetable crisper.
In Italy, where fennel is known as finocchio, the bulbs are baked into flans, dipped raw into bagna cauda, and even fried. Sliced fennel is also a key player in any self-respecting bouillabaisse. In this country, though, fennel doesn’t get much respect. It’s one of those “Hmm, what do you make with that?” veggies that tend to linger in the lower reaches of the produce section, shorn of their stalks and leafy fronds, their bulbs bruised and browning, well past their prime. The oversized bulbs sold in most supermarkets, often mislabeled anise (a reference to its subtle licorice flavor, more splash of Pernod than full-on Good & Plenty), can usually be salvaged by discarding the tough outer layer or two. To find the most tender specimens you should head to the farmers’ market, where you are likely to find smaller, younger bulbs complete with their stalks and fronds, both of which are completely usable.
Start cooking with fennel and you’ll quickly find it’s your secret weapon for amping up the flavor of your favorite tuna salad, vegetable stock, fish stews, and roast veggie dishes. Use it whenever you might reach for celery, onions, or leeks in a braise, and don’t forget to save the feathery tops to sprinkle on salads and broiled dishes for a spot of color. And when you are asked, “What’s in this? I can’t quite put my finger on it,” just smile knowingly.