If you have never cooked with fennel before, it might look very alien in the supermarket, with its huge bulb and feathery green fronds. Overcoming initial impressions and learning how to prepare this unique, delicious ingredient will help elevate and expand your home cooking.
Fennel is a Mediterranean relative of the carrot with a licorice-like flavor.
Stephanie Enjaian, culinary arts department chair at Kennebec Valley Community College, said that the taste can be off-putting to some people, but it is one of those flavors that is truly unique and hard to replicate.
“It is one of those vegetables that’s very versatile,” Enjaian said. “It’s also very aromatic.”
Choosing a quality fennel bulb is easy — just pick one with a white or pale green bulb without bruising or blemishes, and avoid fronds that have flowered or bolted.
“Fennel is like an onion in that it has layers,” said Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine. “If one of the layers is damaged, don’t be afraid to peel it off and discard it.”
Once you have your fennel at home, it is time to cut it up. First, cut off the fronds and separate them from the bulb. Then, slice the bulb into smaller components, depending on what your recipe requires.
“Fennel has a core,” Dumas said. “If you leave a little bit of that core like an onion you can cut it into wedges that hold together, like a cabbage.”
The stalks and feathery fronds can be composted, or they can be used as a garnish or mixed into a salad.
“I put fennel in my chowders, and I’ll use those fennel fronds as a garnish at the end with a little bit of parsley or celery leaves,” Enjaian said. “It is very usable. You could use it dressed with vinegar and olive oil [in a] fennel chimichurri. Fennel stalks tend to be a little more fibrous and dry [but] I’ve seen people take them and candy them which is kind of neat. They could be used in a stock, though it does bring that anise flavor.”
As for the bulb — the true prize of the fennel — one of the most delicious ways to eat it is raw, by simply shaving it and adding it to a salad.
“Slice it very thinly, either with a nice, sharp knife or a mandoline, into thin slivers or rounds,” Dumas said. “Combine the shaved fennel, pomegranate seeds, spiced walnuts, lettuce mix [and] honey vinaigrette [for a] really lovely fall salad. One nice trick for that: After you shave it thin, put it in an ice bath and let it shock, and it’ll get even crispier.”
However, fennel is extremely versatile and not limited to this use. Fennels are often featured in tasty soups, or roasted as a scrumptious side dish.
“Give it a light drizzle with oil and salt, put that in a nice hot oven and roast it, brush it with maple syrup at the end,” Dumas said. “That’s really delicious with duck. Thinly sliced fennel [cooked at] low heat sweat until it’s broken down like a carmelized onion under seared halibut roasted cod, that’s just a phenomenal way to add a secondary or tertiary flavor to a dish.”
If you are feeling ambitious and have time to wait, Dumas said to consider fermenting fennel in a sauerkraut.
“This past year, I did a 50-50 blend, fennel with green cabbage, along with caraway and celery seeds,” Dumas said. “Fennel kraut has been my ultimate topper for things like [sausages]. I think fennel is just awesome.”