Fennel has ancient culinary roots

April 16, 2021

Over the years, I’ve tried a number of the popular meal-kit delivery services, but didn’t continue any subscriptions because there was just too much packaging material to handle. With a dearth of local produce during the winter, I decided to give Misfits Market a trial run. They bill themselves as an online grocery store that rescues food that would otherwise be thrown away, because supermarket chains prefer “perfect” fruits and vegetables.

Their website describes these misfits as organic produce that might be quirky in appearance, including those that are oddly shaped or too small in size. When I opened my first box, I immediately understood. In the shipment were an acorn squash about half the size of the ones found in stores and a mango that was rather lumpy instead of elegantly ovoid.

As promised, the foods were all tasty and performed exactly as the “regular” specimens would in recipes. The next box included one of my favorites – fennel. Again, slightly smaller, but fine in every other aspect: a nice bulb, smooth stalks and lots of feathery green foliage. It would be a delightful side dish roasted or thinly sliced over a bed of greens.

For those of you unfamiliar with fennel, there are several varieties, including sweet, bronze, Florence and Roman. Based on the varietal names, it’s easy to guess that fennel is native to southern Europe, although now cultivated around the world. While not a root vegetable, fennel is actually a member of the carrot family. When growing, the bases of the fennel stalks weave together to form a thick bulb above the ground.

Like so many foods that have been around for centuries, fennel has a history of both medicinal and culinary uses, from ancient China where it was considered a remedy for snakebite to the Middle Ages where it was hung over doorways to repel evil spirits. It’s considered both an herb and a vegetable, and every part of the fennel plant is edible.

Seeds are sweet and aromatic, often found in Italian sausage, baked goods, sauerkraut and pickles. The stems can be grilled and the leaves tossed in salad or used as a decorative (and tasty) garnish. The most versatile part of the fennel plant is its bulb, which is delicious whether cooked or raw.

When raw, fennel has a crisp texture akin to celery, with a hint of licorice flavor. The best preparation is to simply shave the bulb into paper-thin slices and toss it in a salad. For reasons of contrast and compatibility, the sharp crunch and savory bite of raw fennel go well in salads that feature fruit – apples, pears, peaches and citrus all work nicely in combination with fennel.

When fennel is cooked, it caramelizes, tenderizes and develops a sweet flavor. To cook fennel, the easiest approach is to chop the bulb into eighths and roast it in the oven or sauté the pieces in a skillet until softened and slightly golden. For the dish in the photo, roasted fennel is combined with clementine sections and a slightly sweet citrus vinaigrette.

I’ve included two recipes, one for a salad that is endlessly adaptable to what you might have on hand in terms of greens, and a roasted fennel dish that can also be modified, for example if you have an orange instead of clementines. Although Misfits Market helped me keep produce on hand during the winter, I’m looking forward to the May 1 opening of the Historic Lewes Farmers Market.

Roasted Fennel & Clementines

1 fennel1/8 t salt
1 T olive oil
1 T rice wine vinegar
1 T olive oil
1 t honey
1/2 t Dijon mustard
1/4 t white pepper
1/4 t salt
2 clementines
black pepper

Preheat the oven to 450 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil; set aside. Trim away the fennel stalks close to the bulb; chop off the leafy tops and set aside. Cut the stalks into 2-inch pieces and arrange on the baking sheet in a single layer. Cut the bulb in half lengthwise and then into wedges; arrange on the baking sheet in a single layer. Sprinkle the fennel with salt and drizzle with olive oil. Roast until golden brown, about 20 minutes. In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, olive oil, honey, mustard, white pepper and salt; set aside. Zest the clementines to collect 1/2 t; add to the vinaigrette. Peel the clementines and separate the segments, removing any clinging pith or strings. Squeeze the juice from two or three segments into the dressing and discard them. Arrange the roasted fennel and remaining clementine segments on a serving plate and drizzle with the dressing. Garnish with freshly ground pepper and fennel fronds.

Fennel & Apple Salad

3 C baby arugula
1 Granny Smith apple
1 fennel
1 minced shallot
1 T lemon juice
1 T apple juice
1 T apple cider vinegar
1 t grainy mustard
1/4 t salt
1/4 t pepper
3 T olive oil
1/2 C chopped walnuts

Rinse and dry the arugula and place in a serving bowl; set aside. Cut the apple in half and slice very thin, using a mandoline; scatter apple slices over lettuce. Trim away the stalks and fronds from the fennel; set aside. Cut the bulb in half and slice very thin with the mandoline; add fennel to bowl. Whisk together shallot, lemon juice, apple juice, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly to emulsify. Pour dressing over bowl and toss to combine. Garnish with walnuts and fennel fronds. Yield: 4 servings.


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