Remarkable, versatile fennel

It looks like a vegetable designed by Dr. Seuss and tastes like licorice.

Mark Thomson
Fennel: This anise-flavored vegetable can be served alone or used as seasoning in soups.
Mark Thomson
Appetizing: Baked fennel with good quality Parmesan cheese makes for a tasty treat.

Fennel is one of those odd-looking vegetables that looks like it came out of a book by Dr. Seuss; flat and pale with a wrinkly bulb and feathery stalks that look like a stalk of celery with a bad hair day. Appearance aside, this Mediterranean product is going through somewhat of a Renaissance. Lately it's been making more TV appearances than Ryan Seacrest – on the Food Network, anyway.

And if you're familiar with this anise-flavored vegetable this is probably no surprise. If fennel is a stranger in your kitchen, it's time to introduce yourself. This remarkably versatile vegetable is at home in stews, as a boiled vegetable, in soups (it's an essential ingredient in a good bouillabaisse), salads, and grilled with fish. Sliced and served raw, it brings a refreshing crispness to nibble on before a meal. It adds an uncommon, slightly licorice flavor to whatever it touches.

The variety mostly sold in markets today is sweet, or Florentine, fennel. It is also sometimes sold under the name anise, although it has no relationship to that plant.

Fennel is available throughout the year except for summer. Look for firm white bulbs with bright green fronds. Avoid any bulbs with brown bruises, rot, or those trimmed of their feathery leaves. Fennel can be wrapped and stored in the refrigerator for several days. Freeze the leaves and use them to flavor chicken stock, chop them and add to soups, or add them to your coals when grilling fish. If you have a garden, try planting a crop for the finest fresh flavor.

Italian Braised Fennel

The Italians serve this dish at room temperature. It may, however, be served hot. The addition of anise seeds brings out additional licorice flavor.

1 large (about 1 lb.) fennel bulb

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons butter

1 clove garlic, minced

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 teaspoon dried anise seeds

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 cups chicken stock or broth

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Snips of fennel fronds for garnish

Trim stalks from fennel. Cut bulb in half-inch slices. Heat olive oil and butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add garlic and onion and cook until onion is tender, about 10 minutes. Add fennel and anise seed; and salt and pepper to taste.

Add chicken stock or broth and cook, covered, until tender, about 20 minutes.

Remove fennel with a slotted spoon to a serving dish. Bring stock to boil and cook uncovered until reduced to about 1/2 cup, add lemon juice. Pour over fennel, garnish with fennel fronds, and serve immediately, or let cool to room temperature.

Serves 4.

Baked Fennel with Parmesan cheese

Fennel and Parmesan cheese is a perfect marriage. Be sure and use a top-quality freshly grated Parmesan – at all costs avoid any cheese that comes in a green cylindrical box!

2 lbs. fennel bulbs

3/4 cup of freshly grated, or shaved, Parmesan cheese

3 tablespoons butter

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Olive oil for drizzling

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Trim and wash fennel, leaving about 3-inch stems. Steam or blanch fennel in a covered saucepan until slightly tender, but still firm, about 12 to 15 minutes.

Remove from heat and allow to cool to the touch.

Cut fennel in quarters, and place, cut side up, in a buttered 1-1/2-quart baking dish. Cover with cheese and dabs of butter.
Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with olive oil.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until cheese is browned.

Serves 4.

Cream of Fennel Soup

1 large fennel bulb

6 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 cups canned chicken broth

1 egg yolk

1/2 cup half-and-half

Salt and freshly ground black, to taste

2 to 3 tablespoons snipped feathery fennel leaves for garnish

Trim stalks from fennel. (Stalks may be
frozen for later use in soups or stock.)

Wash fennel bulb, cut in half, cut out tough core from base of bulb and discard. Cut fennel into thin slices.

Melt butter under low heat in a large, heavy saucepan. Add fennel and onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until fennel is soft and onion is clear, about 15 minutes.

Whisk in flour and cook, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes. Turn up heat to medium-high and whisk in chicken broth. Bring mixture to a boil, then turn heat to simmer. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally; remove from heat and set aside to cool slightly. Add to blender or food processor and purée until smooth; pour into 4-quart saucepan.

Whisk egg yolk and half-and-half together in a bowl; slowly add about 1 cup of puréed fennel mixture; slowly stir in this mixture into saucepan with remaining fennel mixture.

Heat, but do not boil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour into 4 soup bowls; garnish with fennel leaves.

Serves 4.

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