Five Ways to Eat Fresh Fennel

I met a new vegetable recently, and I’m totally infatuated: fennel.

Florence fennel
Fennel Courtesy of Flickr user quinn.anya

I'd heard of fennel, but had never eaten it until I visited my husband's family for Thanksgiving a couple of years ago. The appetizers included a veggie tray with familiar snacks like peppers, cucumbers, broccoli and baby carrots. But there were also some curved, pale pieces I didn't recognize, with a celery-like crunch and a pleasant licorice taste.

My husband told me this was called anise (pronounced "ann-iss," although when they were younger he and his brothers preferred a grosser pronunciation), and that was that. I didn't realize until later, perusing the produce aisles, that I'd actually eaten fennel! (It's sometimes mislabeled as anise, a different plant whose seeds are also redolent of licorice.)

I've incorporated fresh fennel into many recipes since then, and found it wonderfully versatile. Here are a few ways to use it:

1. Soup: Roughly following this recipe, I made a very simple tomato-fennel soup by sauteeing some chopped fennel (preparation tips here) with onion and garlic in the bottom of a stockpot for 5 minutes, then adding a large can of crushed tomatoes and about 3 cups of water. I let the soup simmer (covered) for 40 minutes or so while preparing the rest of dinner, then used the immersion blender to puree it. I stirred in 1/3 cup of heavy cream right before serving, and garnished each bowl with fennel fronds. With some rustic sourdough bread, it made a delicious appetizer for our dinner. Next, I plan to try Sweet Amandine's carrot-fennel soup.

2. Salad: I've made two variations on fresh salads with fennel so far, and both were big hits. Basically, when you combine slivers of fresh fennel with citrus segments (grapefruits, oranges, and/or clementines) and fresh herbs (including the fennel fronds), you're on to something great. I also love fresh roasted beets, so I added these in quarters (both red and golden), along with some baby spinach (arugula's good, too). I tossed this combination with a light dressing made by combining a few tablespoons of the following ingredients to taste: fig-infused vinegar, olive oil, maple syrup, and spicy maple mustard. If you prefer actual recipes, look to Sassy Radish's fennel tangerine salad or this roasted beet and fennel salad.

3. Gratin: Depending on what ingredients you have, riff off recipes like Ina Gartin's potato-fennel gratin and Smitten Kitchen's swiss chard and sweet potato gratin. I had a small yam and a white potato to use up, so I peeled and sliced both, then layered them in a casserole dish with some cooked Swiss chard (chopped and sauteed with garlic, then squeeze-dried a bit) grated Gruyere and fontinella, and a basic bechamel sauce. I topped it all with a few slices of fresh mozzarella, and baked it (covered in foil) for 45 minutes. It was so good that just writing about it makes me want to run home and make more!

4. Roasted: Couldn't be simpler! Cut a fresh fennel bulb into quarters or eighths, depending on size, toss with olive oil and vinegar, and roast on a baking sheet until tender (try 20 minutes at 400 for starters). Top with grated fresh parmesan and enjoy as a snack or a side dish.

5. Dessert: There aren't too many vegetables that work well in desserts, but like I said, this one's versatile. The Washington Post's recipe finder offers up fennel panna cotta (though you'd probably have to skip the grilled strawberries this time of year), and the blog My French Cooking suggests a mouth-watering candied fennel sponge cake.

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