Ahead of her fennel-themed Demo Kitchen appearance, Jenny Chandler sings the praises of this crisp, aniseedy vegetable
As a child, brought up in rural Worcestershire, the greens we ate came from our vegetable patch, with a few gaps filled by the rather unadventurous local greengrocer’s. Fennel was not on the menu. Years later, as a cook on a sail boat I really fell for this newcomer to my repertoire. It’s hardly surprising that I was beguiled by its charms: I was working in Italy where fennel is better understood and more lovingly cooked than anywhere else on the planet.
Fennel is most commonly known as a tall, feathery looking herb, grown for its aniseed flavoured leaves and seeds but today I’m talking about the cultivar Florence fennel (known as finocchio in Italy) eaten as a vegetable with its swollen, bulb-like stem base. Once harvested and trimmed of foliage, Florence fennel, with its voluptuous curves, looks rather like a Rubenesque bulb of celery. In fact, the more round-hipped and fleshy the better, as far as an Italian cook is concerned. It’s best eaten when really fresh, so a few perfectly perky, bright green fronds poking from the top are always a good sign (great for chopping and sprinkling as a tasty garnish too). Once purchased, keep fennel in the fridge and use as soon as possible.
Crisp and assertive
One of the beauties of fennel as a vegetable is its split personality: as a raw ingredient, it’s crisp and assertively aniseedy, while long, slow cooking delivers a more subtle, soft sweetness. Some dismiss fennel as too strong a taste, but it’s just a question of knowing if, when and how to tame its potent flavour.
Finely sliced, raw fennel makes a perfectly cleansing, rather sharp and crunchy salad. Just remember to cast aside the outer, stringy layers (they go in the freezer to flavour your next chicken or vegetable stock), to toss the slices in citrus juice to stop them oxidising or browning, and if you’re really looking for optimum crunch, to soak in iced water in the fridge for an hour. In Italy, simple, naked fennel is sometimes eaten raw at the end of a meal instead of fruit, to clear the palate and help digestion. I love the Sicilian-style salad of thin shavings of the bulb with fresh oranges, black olives and a splash of extra virgin olive oil, stunning alongside some oily fish such as mackerel. Umami-rich sun blush (also known as semi-sundried) tomatoes are heaven with shredded fennel, grated parmesan and a few nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts thrown in.
Once cooked, fennel’s more mellow character comes through and many a finocchio-doubter will be won over. The best way to ensure perfectly tender fennel when serving in large pieces is to quarter your bulb and simmer for about 15 minutes until tender in lightly salted water (try using the leftover water for cooking pasta, it’s superb). Drain the fennel well and then proceed to roast, grill or even dip in egg and breadcrumbs and fry. Perhaps the best way of all is a simple gratin: just place the blanched fennel in a flat oven dish with plenty of butter, black pepper and a generous sprinkling of parmesan and roast until golden.
Fennel plays a superb second fiddle to many other ingredients too. Try cooking finely chopped fennel with tomatoes as the base of a classic fish soup or to accompany lamb in a stew. Diced cured ham, fennel and breadcrumbs make a wonderful stuffing for oily fish and roasted fennel puree is a magical way to scent a creamy cannellini bean soup.
Do join me, the fennel fancier, on Friday—exploring the fabulous versatility of an often-overlooked vegetable.
Join Jenny for tips, tastings and recipes on Friday 30th June in the Market Hall, 12:30-2pm