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Wake Up Your Taste Buds- Add Fennel To Your Menu

Fennel is really coming into its own, and nobody is happier than I. Browned in butter and braised in broth, it was a childhood favorite with roasts, but I’d never had it raw. My love affair started at a dinner party shortly after I moved to Italy with a tossed salad. When I asked about the crisp ingredient with the sparkling taste, my hostess, an American, married to an Italian, knew exactly which one I meant, remembering her own delight.

Twenty years ago, or even less, fennel was not popular in the U.S., except in some ethnic recipes, and then only cooked.  On the other hand, Europe, especially Southern Europe has been enjoying it in all forms for centuries.  A perennial indigenous to the Mediterranean it was probably carried North by the Romans because it’s mentioned in their recipes and in early Anglo-Saxon texts.

The most popular variety of fennel is Florentine Finnocchi.  It’s a shrub with fibrous stems, edible only when finely chopped and cooked for long periods with other ingredients as in stuffings, feathery, delicate, frond-like leaves, used as a soup flavoring and tasty garnish and a white bulb eaten as a vegetable. The seeds are also used as a flavoring agent especially in sausage. There is some confusion between fennel and anise or aniseed. Often mislabeled even in the produce sections, they are not the same plant. Fennel is of the carrot family. Anise, also a perennial, but native to the Eastern Mediterranean and South West Asia, is smaller, related to parsley and only the seeds are used for flavoring.

Both fennel and anise have culinary and medical applications, and their flavor is similar, often compared to licorice. Licorice, however, is an entirely unrelated plant, native to Southwest Europe, India and parts of Asia. Its black roots give its namesake products, mainly candies their color and flavor. Aniseed too is used in confections but fennel is not.

The growing interest in healthy eating gave fennel a step up on the pop-food ladder. Nutritionally low in calories and fat, high in fiber, rich in vitamins A, C, iron and calcium, it’s an excellent option. The interest in fresh raw foods prompted by diets like the Paleo gave it a real boost. The Millennials’ focus on making salads the main component of a meal raised it to the top.  Now, popular food magazines feature it in at least one recipe in each issue.  Oddly, though fennel is now found globally and is considered an invasive species in the U.S., most of what we buy is imported, primarrly from Mexico or Canada.

I’m giving several recipes below, but I confess, aside from the bulbs braised, and the ground seeds used in meat rubs, I prefer the crispness and bright flavor of raw fennel. It plays off other ingredients well, especially acidic or slightly bitter ones like fruit or some greens, which is why it’s most often featured in salads or the seeds scattered over dishes for added flavor.  If you haven’t tried fennel yet, please do. You’re in for a real treat!

Fennel au Gratin: Serves 4
2 fennel bulbs- sliced
1 small onion- diced
2 plum tomatoes – chopped
1 garlic clove – minced + ½ clove minced in reserve
2 Tbs. olive oil
½ cup fresh bread crumbs
¼ cup grated Parmesan
1 tsp. fresh lemon zest
Saute onion, fennel and garlic in oil until onion is soft. Add tomatoes and place mixture in a baking dish. Top with bread crumbs, cheese, reserved garlic and bake at 375 deg. for 20 min. Serve hot.

Spaghetti e Finocchio: A Sicilian dish – Serves 4
¾ lb. thinly sliced fennel bulb
3Tbs. oil
1small onion chopped
¾ cup water- cooled from cooking liquid
½ Tbs. pine nuts
1 Tbs. raisins
(1) 10 oz. can Jack mackerel –skinned and boned or (3) 3.5.oz.cans sardines – drained (skinless and boneless preferred)
Salt and pepper
1 cup toasted bread crumbs
¾ lb. spaghetti
Cook fennel in water to cover until crisp tender, about 5-8 min. Cut in ½ inch pieces. Reserve ¾ cup of cooking water- allow it to cool. Saute onion in oil until golden, about 3 min. Add fish and cook 10 min. stirring often to avoid burning. Add remaining ingredients, except pasta and bread crumbs and simmer for about 10 min. allowing fish to break up.
Cook spaghetti, drain and put in a deep dish. Add half the fennel mix and sprinkle with half the bread crumbs. Toss and plate. Top plates with the remaining mix and bread crumbs. Serve at once very hot.

Braised Fennel: Serves 4

2 heads fennel – stalks removed and quartered
1 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. oil
Enough broth to partially cover
Salt and pepper
Saute the fennel in the butter and oil until golden on one side and slightly translucent about 5 min. Pour over broth, cover pan and simmer until tender about 15- 20 min. Season and serve hot.

Fennel Seed Meat Rub: Per 1.2 pound
1 Tbs. ground fennel seeds
¼ tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. garlic powder
Mix together and rub on surface of chicken, pork, turkey pieces or a firm white fish before cooking.

Fennel, Tomato and Chicory Salad:  Serves  4
1 fennel bulb thinly sliced
1 small head chicory washed and cut in 2 inch pieces- or curly endive
2 large plum tomatoes quartered
6 Tbs. olive oil
2 Tbs. wine vinegar
1 clove garlic
Salt and pepper
2 Tbs. toasted almonds
Rub a large salad bowl with the garlic. Toss vegetables in the bowl, add salt and pepper to taste. Blend oil and vinegar and toss with ingredients in bowl. Chill and serve garnished with almonds.

Fennel and Orange Salad with Walnuts: Serves 4
1 fennel bulb – thinly sliced
2 navel oranges peled and sectioned
½ cup toasted walnut pieces
1 tsp. fennel seed
Pinch nutmeg
½ cup olive oil
1/3 cup orange juice
1 Tbs. lemon juice
Pinch cayenne
Salt and pepper to taste
Greens to bed – optional
Toss fruit, fennel, walnuts and nutmeg. Whisk the remaining ingredients and toss with the fruit and fennel. Optionally, bed on greens.

Fennel also mixes well with radishes, cucumber, cabbage, celery, pears, apples, grapes and most nuts. Citrus fruits, pieces, zest or juice spark its flavor as does a bit of vinegar in the dressing. Because of fennel’s unique flavor, some may think it’s hard to be creative in using it, but the opposite is true. Aside from braised, fennel doesn’t like to be alone and readily combines with other foods.  Actually, it’s an excellent place to learn to be creative, and salads are a good platform, especially the newer ones  combining many ingredients, including grains and seeds.

What’s that old expression? “Try it you’ll like it.”

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