How many times have you passed by that pretty pile of fennel in the grocery store, admiring its frondy, frilly beauty - but never, for a moment, considered buying any? Savvy fennel fans would beg you to back up and grab a bulb or two – it’s a great time of year to discover the delights of this oft-overlooked vegetable.
Fennel (which is also an herb and a spice) is being harvested right now at local farms, and foodies who have subscribed to a CSA are probably finding this unique veggie tucked into their weekly boxes.
Composed of a crunchy white bulb from which feathery dill-like fronds erupt, fennel is surprisingly versatile. It offers a subtly sweet, licorice-tinged flavor that tastes strongest when the vegetable is eaten raw. Many people like thinly slicing it and incorporating it into salads – it pairs well with an array of ingredients, from raw mushrooms and Parmesan cheese to toasted nuts, celery, apples, endive and oranges.
But that’s just the beginning – fennel is excellent when braised, grilled, sautéed or featured in stews, soups, risottos and gratins.
While many recipes call for just the white bulb (which is typically cored and sliced or chopped), the stalks and fronds of the fennel plant can be cooked or eaten raw as well. The stalks can be used to make soup stock, for example, and the fronds can be added to salads or even chopped to uniquely garnish other dishes.
In addition to its tasty gastronomic charms, the vegetable is also a low-calorie source of vitamin C, dietary fiber, potassium and folate. A member of the parsley family, fennel is related to carrots, caraway, anise and cumin. And according to the Herb Society of America, fennel has a long history of “medicinal, magical and culinary uses.” Enjoyed by the ancient Egyptians, fennel was also considered a snake bite remedy in ancient China – and, during the Middle Ages, it was hung over doorways to drive away evil spirits.
For an excellent primer on how to tackle your first bulb of fennel, check out cookthink.com’s “How to Prep Fennel” instruction guide.