By Barbara Kobsar
You can’t miss it. Fennel grows wild all over the East Bay, showing off its feathery plumes along roads and trails. The wild, or common green fennel, which perfumes the air with its sweet licorice-like scent, is a perennial herb of the carrot family. Like its cousins, parsley, dill, chervil and anise, fennel easily reseeds itself, which is why you see it growing all over our wild landscape.
Wild fennel is closely related to the bulbous Florence fennel now in season and available in our markets. One of the true delights of the Mediterranean table, Florence fennel has gained notice in the United States only in the last decade. It is still marketed as a specialty vegetable, often mislabeled “anise” because of its licorice or anise taste and aroma. Indeed, Florence fennel is related to the plant which produces the culinary anise seeds used to flavor baked goods, and like anise seeds, fennel seeds impart a strong, licorice-like flavor.
Florence fennel is produced specifically for its enlarged bulb or thickened leaf base. The broad ribbed leafstalks overlap each other to form a 3- to 4-inch wide, firm, whitish bulb that grows just above ground. Extending above are the pale green celery-like stalks. These are quite similar to the stalks of the wild fennel, which can be seen reaching five feet high in the summer season before they die back, leaving behind shrubby skeletons from which new shoots of fresh greenery emerge late in the rainy season. Those new shoots of wild fennel can be used as an herb, as can the oval, greenish brown fennel seeds left on the large umbels after the yellow flowers whither. But the stalks, which overlap one another at the base of the wild fennel plant, form only a skimpish bulb, which is tough and not suitable for eating.
While it might be fun to forage for fresh shoots of wild fennel, farmers’ markets are often the best places to find fresh fennel bulbs with some feathery leaves still attached. The ferny foliage is excellent in flavored butters, soups, sauces and fish dishes, added to salads or sandwiches, or chopped and used as a garnish.
The bulb is delicious served raw or cooked. To prepare the bulb, rinse well and trim the stalks down to within 1 inch of the bulb. Trim off the base, leaving about 1/8 inch near the root to hold the bulb together during cooking. Peel off any coarse, outer layers and cut the bulb in half lengthwise or crosswise.
Raw Florence fennel makes a delicious and simple addition to an hors d’oeuvre platter. Cut prepared bulbs lengthwise into slender chunks (like celery) letting the core hold a few pieces together. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of kosher salt. Add some goat cheese to the plate and you might even find sliced, raw fennel appealing as a healthful dessert.
Braised fennel is wonderful as a side dish. To braise, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat and add two trimmed and quartered heads of fennel. Sauté and turn frequently for about 5 minutes. Add 2 cups chicken broth and 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, cover and simmer gently over low heat for about 30 minutes. (The liquid should be syrupy). Place the fennel in a shallow baking dish and pour the sauce over it. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and sprinkle with ⅓ to ½ cup Parmesan cheese. Bake at 375 degrees for about 15 minutes or until the cheese has melted and turns golden brown.
Since barbecuing is a year round activity at my house, I like to place the fennel stalks and leaves on the coals so the wonderful fennel scent can permeate whatever I’m grilling. If the stalks are long enough, they can be used as a natural rack in a roasting pan for poultry and meats.
I like to use my vegetables as soon as possible after purchase, but fennel keeps unwashed in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for 4 or 5 days if necessary. Fennel bulbs will keep longer if any excess stalks or leaves are removed before storing.
Besides fennel’s unique flavor, it’s low in calories and high in vitamins A and E, calcium and potassium. It’s delicious and healthy. What a way to start the New Year!
Enjoy and see you at the farmers’ markets.
Barbara Kobsar writes a regular column on seasonal produce for the Contra Costa Times, and contributes to many other publications. She has authored two cookbooks that focus on traditional home cooking. When not roaming the farmers’ market aisles, she is behind her market stand selling her Cottage Kitchen jams and jellies, which she makes from fresh farmers’ market produce.
Cooking with Fennel at Bay Wolf
These recipes come from Oakland’s [now closed] Bay Wolf Restaurant, where monthly menus highlight the season’s prime ingredients, often following traditional uses from the regional cuisines of the Mediterranean. Michael Wild, founding owner and executive chef, confirms our accolades for fennel and dedicates a whole month to this versatile vegetable. Here are a few of the creative dishes prepared and created by Wild and Chef de Cuisine Louis Le Gassic to highlight fennel.
Tian of Fennel and Kabocha
2 bulbs fennel cut into ¼ inch slices
½ kabocha peeled and seeded and sliced into ¼ inch slices
1 small red onion sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons breadcrumbs
4 tablespoon grated Reggiano
Toss the cut fennel, kabocha and red onion in 2 tablespoons of olive oil and season well with salt and pepper. Place into an ovenproof baking dish and drizzle the water throughout the dish. Put into a preheated 350-degree oven and bake for 30 to 40 minutes until the fennel and kabocha are soft.
Top with breadcrumbs and Reggiano. Return to oven and bake until golden brown. Serve hot.
Citrus Braised Fennel
2 fennel bulbs cut into ¼-inch slices
Chopped zest and juice of 4 oranges
1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar
2 tablespoon honey
2 thyme springs
1 cup white wine
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350°.
Coat fennel slices with olive oil. Arrange in a single layer in an ovenproof dish and season well. Roast the fennel for 20 minutes in the preheated oven.
Meanwhile, combine orange juice, vinegar, honey, thyme, and black peppercorns in a saucepan. Bring to a boil to reduce by half, then strain the mixture over the roasted fennel and return to the oven for another 20 minutes.
Arrange roasted fennel in a baking dish. Pour remaining liquid into the saucepan and reduce to a glaze. Pour glaze over the fennel and serve hot or room temperature.
Shaved Fennel, Artichoke and Mushroom Salad with Reggiano
2 fennel bulbs
Heart of 1 large artichoke
4-6 button mushrooms
Juice of 1 Meyer lemon
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Italian parsley sprigs
With a mandoline shave the fennel, artichoke heart, and button mushrooms into a bowl as thinly as possible. Season with salt and pepper. Add the Meyer lemon juice and olive oil. Toss and let stand for a few minutes. Toss in the parsley sprigs and arrange onto salad plates. With a vegetable peeler, shave some Reggiano over the top of each plate to finish.
Bay Wolf Fennel Crusted and Stuffed Pork Rib Roast
Bay Wolf Chef de Cuisine Louis Le Gassic used to work at a local butcher shop where he became an expert in preparing meats, such as this rib end pork roast. He recommends asking your butcher to french and butterfly the roast for you. However, when Edible East Bay asked to watch, Le Gassic had on hand a roast that had not been frenched and butterflied, so we were able to photograph the whole process.
1 ten-rib end pork roast, frenched and butterflied
10 tablespoons fennel seed, toasted and ground
Salt and pepper
1 bulb fennel, sliced ⅛ inch thick
Preheat oven to 325°.
“French” the roast by carving the meat away from the bone ends as in the photo at top left. “Butterfly” the roast by slicing part-way down its length so you can lay it open flat on the cutting board (left center photo). Season the inside of the roast with a third of the toasted, ground fennel seed, plus ample salt and pepper (lower left photo).
As in the top right photo, lay the fresh fennel slices over the spices on the roast and then roll up the roast, tying it securely at the center (right center photo) first before tying between each bone moving outward both directions from the center.
Rub the roast with olive oil and season the outside with salt, pepper, and the remaining ground fennel seeds (as in the lower-right photo). Place on a rack in the preheated oven. Roast until the meat has reached an internal temperature of 145–150°. Remove from the oven, cover with a tent of aluminum foil, and allow roast to rest for 20 to 30 minutes. To serve, slice the roast straight down between the bones, removing string as you go.