Fennel adds unique flavor to winter dishes

Fennel becomes tender and sweet when cooked, as in this fennel and shallot tart. BY JACK CLEMONS
January 14, 2013

After several weeks of unexpected travel, I was finally back in my own kitchen again. The good news was that I now had the opportunity to use my Christmas gift: a set of chef’s knives. The bad news was that we had a refrigerator full of produce, much of it past its prime.

Celery hearts were a total loss, mushrooms desiccated beyond rescue, and the lettuce had become a slimy mess. I was left with a droopy fennel bulb originally intended for a citrus salad. Since the fennel wasn’t fresh enough for that dish, I decided to cook it instead.

Fennel (often mislabeled anise in the supermarket) is a cool-weather crop that’s at its best this time of year. The white bulbs have green stems topped with feathery green fronds that resemble dill weed. When shopping for fennel, look for fresh, unblemished bulbs that feel heavy for their size. The tips of the stalks shouldn’t be dried out, and the bottom of the bulb shouldn't show any browning.

To store fennel, wrap it loosely in a plastic bag and keep it in the crisper drawer. Be sure the temperature isn’t set too low; like other vegetables with high water content, fennel can freeze if the refrigerator is too cold (ours has a spot in the back of the top shelf we try to avoid for this very reason). Today, the most popular variety of fennel cultivated commercially is Florence fennel or finocchio, prized for its fleshy bulb. Another type, known as common fennel, is the source of flavorful seeds. Both evolved from a wild ancestor native to the Mediterranean region. The slightly anise-flavored seeds are chewed as a breath freshener as well as used to season stews, sauces, pickles and fish dishes.

Most modern recipes that call for fresh fennel don’t make use of the stalks or leaves, and include only the cored and trimmed bulb. The flavor of raw fennel has a subtle hint of licorice (not black jelly beans, more like a memory of the scent). Thinly sliced fennel adds crunch and taste interest to a salad, especially when paired with citrus as in the recipe below. When fennel is cooked, it becomes tender and sweet. Try tossing wedges of fennel in the roasting pan along with carrots and parsnips the next time you roast a chicken. The pieces soften in the roasting juices and develop a lovely caramel color. For the dish in the photo, we paired fennel (thinly sliced with my new chef’s knife) with shallots and gently cooked them in a bit of butter until lightly browned. A puff pastry shell was the final ingredient for a savory tart.

And you needn’t put the stalks in the compost heap; add them to your soup pot when making a stock or dice them into your mirepoix to replace the celery. Use the stalks mixed with your favorite herbs to infuse this signature flavor to fish filets steamed in parchment paper.

The fronds are a lovely garnish and can be snipped into salad greens or over steamed vegetables. Once we finished our lunch of fennel shallot tart, I realized why I’d chosen this lovely bulb, and knew it was time to find another one.

Fennel Citrus Salad

2 fennel bulbs
2 seedless oranges
1 T capers
2 T kalamata olives
1 T dill
2 t red wine vinegar
1/2 t lemon zest
1 T Dijon mustard
1/2 t salt
4 T olive oil

Trim the stalks from the fennel; discard or reserve for another use. Slice the bulb in half lengthwise; cut each half crosswise into very thin slices. Peel and section the oranges, reserving 2 sections. Place fennel and oranges in a serving bowl; add capers, olives and dill. Trim the reserved orange sections into a small dice and place in a blender. Add vinegar, mustard, lemon zest and salt; pulse until smooth. With the motor running on low, add the olive oil and blend until emulsified. Pour dressing over the fennel mixture and toss to combine.

Fennel Shallot Tart

1 sheet puff pastry
1 T butter
4 shallots
1 fennel bulb
1 T Balsamic vinegar
pinch thyme
salt & pepper, to taste
fennel fronds

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place defrosted pastry sheet in the center of the sheet and gently roll up edges to create a lip. Melt butter in a skillet over low heat. Peel shallots and slice into thin rings. Add to skillet and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Trim off fennel fronds and remove root end. Slice the bulb in half lengthwise, then crosswise into very thin slices. Add fennel, vinegar and thyme to the skillet; continue to sauté until shallots are golden and fennel is tender, about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Spread the fennel mixture evenly over the pastry sheet. Bake until pastry is golden, about 30 minutes. Garnish with fennel fronds.