I need to begin this tale with a bit of backstory … it happened many moons ago while I was still in culinary school. It was December and I wanted to make a hot apple cider for Christmas Eve, so I sent my husband off to the store to buy star anise. When he returned he came back with an onion-like bulb in his hand. I was, of course, irritated, because I knew what star anise was and that was not it! This imposter was in fact fennel. At that very moment though I was stumped, not knowing why this fennel bulb had been mistaken for star anise. My husband innocently informed me that the produce manager had given it to him when he asked for “star anise.” Needless to say we did not have the hot apple cider but I will never forget that mix up because I knew then that there was more to this large bulb than I knew right then.
Fast forward a few years and I was reintroduced to fennel by a friend at work. She swore by this simple dish of braised fennel with Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. It sounded tasty, but I still did not understand the general appeal because of the licorice-flavor fennel seems to have. You have to understand something about me—I never wanted to be a savory chef. I went to culinary school but my passion was, and still is, baking. I always loved to cook, but I would never consider myself a foodie. I have evolved and want to learn as much as possible, which is why I love writing these stories to educate both you and I.
In my investigation for this story, I have now solved the mystery of why the produce manager sold my husband the fennel. Fennel is often labeled star anise. Now this is wrong, mind you, as they are not even the same plant. This general confusion makes people think that fennel has the same very strong licorice flavor as anise. Fennel is actually far more delicate. It has licorice-like undertones in its flavor but they are very subtle. I know Italians enjoy fennel in a variety of ways in their cooking. I even recall a vague conversation about ruining lasagna by using too much fennel seed.
It also turns out the bulb that my husband brought home from the store many years ago is not even from the onion family as I thought. Fennel is, in fact, a part of the parsley family. There are three principal types of fennel: bitter, sweet and Florence. The Florence is the type you generally will find in your local produce department. Bitter fennel is a thin-stemmed plant that is mainly grown in Europe for its seed. Sweet fennel is favored and generally grown in Italy. The sweet plants have a tendency to revert to bitter tang as they age. The sweet seeds have a mild anise-like flavor, which the bitter variety lacks. Florence fennel, or finocchio, is considered a vegetable; the short stumpy plant has the base of a solid overlapping mass which may be as large as a fist. The name finocchio is simply the general Italian word for fennel.
When you buy fennel choose large, firm bulbs with the feathery stalks still intact. Rounded bulbs tend to be sweeter than the more flattened, elongated ones. Pale fennel is often sweeter and less fibrous than the dark variety. Make sure there are no brown or soft spots and that the stalks aren’t dried out or limp.
You’ll need to trim fennel before cooking it. Start by cutting the stalk off as close to the bulb as possible. If you are going to cook the fennel leave the outer layer, but if you are going to eat it raw you may want to remove it. When braising, grilling or roasting just cut the bulb in half and then into four to eight wedges before cooking. When consuming it raw, core the bulb (the core can be quite tough) after cutting it in quarters, then cut them into half-moon slices.
I discovered a very simple winter salad using raw fennel, orange segments, red onions and black olives, and then dressing it with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. It will give the palate quite a charge of crisp, cool, salty and sweet. It’s important to cut the fennel very thinly. I would suggest using a mandolin for this job so you can get your slices paper-thin. Note: only cut the fennel as needed because it will dry out very quickly.
Those of you who are trying to get a “clean” food start for the new year (like me) may want to try the braised fennel in place of an au gratin dish. Trading those starchy potatoes and cream for fennel in a vegetable stock would be an excellent alternative. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano at the very end of the braising just so it gets well browned and helping to save on the calorie count. Just one other nutrient note: Fennel also has antioxidants, vitamin C and potassium.
Who knew fennel could be so versatile? You can prepare it by using any cooking method: frying, sautéing, braised, roasted or even raw. My personal favorite so far is braised, but no matter how you prepare your fennel it becomes almost creamy in texture once it is thoroughly cooked. It loses the crunch but gains a certain sweetness. Even the core, despite its original toughness, becomes tender and mild.
By Chef K. Marie Paulk