Fennel, a vegetable with a “bagpipe” bulb and feathery green fronds, won’t win any beauty awards, but it has won a passionate following from chefs and home cooks who enjoy its sweet aniseed or licorice taste. .
Besides its unusual appearance, the bulb has two identities: crunchy with a fresh licorice flavor when raw, or soft and buttery when roasted or sautéed.
I first came across fennel in a restaurant in Italy where it was served paper-thin slices in a salad with segments of peeled blood oranges and drizzled with a simple vinaigrette of lemon juice and olive oil and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. I like to scatter Kalamata olives over the salad for a nice lunchtime appetizer.
A mandolin is handy for slicing fennel and cheese. The smaller bulbs have a milder flavor, which lends them well to salads like this or just eating raw; larger bulbs have a stronger flavor and are great for grilling, braising and roasting.
Look for compact, firm white bulbs with no blemishes or cracks. Stems should be crisp with fronds that show no signs of wilting or flowering. Store unwashed fennel in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.
Every part of the vegetable is edible; from bulb and stems to dill-like fronds. The fronds can be used as a garnish for salads, soups or pastas, and the stems can be used in soups and stews.
Fennel can be intimidating to work with at first, but once you cut off the stems and green tops, the bulb is easy to manage. Cut off all the hard outer layers of the bulb; hold the bulb upright and cut into quarters lengthwise, then cut the core from the center of each quarter.
Like onions, roasted fennel caramelizes beautifully due to its high sugar content. It goes wonderfully with roast pork, fish or chicken.
Toss fennel on the grill this summer for an unusual partner for grilled main courses. Slice lengthwise into ½-inch slices, leaving the pit intact to prevent the fennel from falling apart, and brush with olive oil before placing directly on the grill. Grill about 3-5 minutes per side until lightly charred and tender. Remove and drizzle with the juice of half a lemon.
Fennel is rich in vitamins A and C, fiber and potassium and is low in calories.
Salmon with Grapefruit, Harissa, Capers and Fennel
This recipe is adapted from One Dish Fish by Lola Milne, Kyle Books, ($22.00).
Ritual Sauvignon Blanc 2019 from Chile ($20.99) is fresh and fruity with plenty of citrus and herbal notes, making it a great match for the tart spice of the harissa and balancing the fatness of the salmon .
Milne writes, “This dish makes a great summer supper. It’s a wonderful balance of sweet, tangy and salty, with a gentle heat from the harissa. If you want, you can try replacing the butter beans with cannellini beans, boiled potatoes or chickpeas.
2 teaspoons rose harissa (available online and at Whole Foods)
1 ripe pink or orange grapefruit, peeled with as much skin removed as possible, segmented and cut into small pieces
2 fennel bulbs, tough outer leaves and core discarded, cut into thin wedges, leaves reserved
3 tablespoons of capers
5 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 to 14 ounces butter beans, drained
4 salmon fillets (about 4¼ oz each) or
a small handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves coarsely chopped
a small handful of fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
lemon wedges, for serving
Preheat your oven to 425°. In a large roasting pan, combine the harissa, grapefruit, fennel and capers. Pour over the 5 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of water, then season, cover with aluminum foil and cook for 20 minutes.
Raise the oven temperature to 450°. Take out the roasting pan and stir in the butter beans. Add the salmon, turn it over to coat it with the juices before positioning it flesh side up, drizzle with a little extra olive oil and season. Return the pan to the oven for about 8 minutes until the flesh breaks apart easily.
Sprinkle the roasting dish with herbs and fennel leaves and serve with lemon wedges to squeeze.
Yield: 4 servings