Fennel has a fine flavour and fascinating back-story. Elizabeth Latham thinks you should get to know it better.
Florence fennel looks just like a bulb but it isn't at all. It is a series of tightly packed, licorice-flavoured leaves, perfectly formed around each other, topped with long green stalks and wispy leaves.
Eaten raw or cooked, fennel is a wonderful food treat. This delightful vegetable has been enjoyed in southern Europe for centuries and the Italians particularly have lovingly incorporated it into their cuisine. Its delicate anise flavour combines brilliantly with tomatoes, garlic, limes, lemons, pork, duck and sausages, and that is just the beginning.
Florence fennel is part of the species Foeniculum vulgare so is related to the wild fennel plant that grows prodigiously in New Zealand. It is specifically known as Foeniculum vulgare azoricum.
It even has an exotic past in that it is one of the three key ingredients in the making of absinthe. Absinthe is a liquor with a major reputation, made popular in the 19th century by famous literary folk who consumed it with vigour and wrote about it with equal passion.
It is in season here now. It grows through the winter and has been harvested for the last few months. Brett Ferretti from Hope sells fennel at the Saturday market so if you are after the best of local and seasonal, head to the market to sample his crop.
It is also available in the supermarket. Growers in the Auckland area are able to maintain a crop year round which increases its availability to us.
In an earlier article I wrote about scallops and fennel noting that this vegetable, known in Italy as finocchio, is essential to the Italian diet and is increasingly part of ours.
I said then that, "it is similar to celery in many ways but has a wonderful anise flavour that adds so much to dishes ... normally it comes with some of its wispy herb on top. The delicious anise flavour can be enhanced by adding some fennel seeds or a splash of pernod to give a more dramatic flavour. It is a great vegetable to experiment with."
Nearly two years on, I think that fennel is more widely available. It appears on the supermarket shelves more regularly. Maybe this is testimony to people's willingness to experiment more with foods.
Fennel contains iron, potassium, vitamin A and C, calcium and dietary fibre. When buying, look for bulbs that are firm and feel heavy with the green top looking fresh. It will store in the refrigerator for several days and up to a week. Store in a plastic bag to keep it fresher.
To serve, remove the outermost leaves and slice off the base. If I am adding fennel to a sauce I will use all of it – green tops and wispy leaves as well. I also use all of it in a salad. It can be steamed, baked, boiled or braised.
Use fennel instead of celery in recipes and notice the subtle difference in flavour. Use fennel as a base ingredient in making a risotto, add fennel to a pasta sauce plus a teaspoon of fennel seeds to intensify the licorice flavour. Add fennel to a ratatouille. There are wonderful options for this vegetable.
This is a very simple salad but it is delicious. Serve it alongside some pork and fennel sausages or grilled chicken.
2 medium sized fennel bulbs
Good splash of extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Remove the outer leaves of the fennel bulb and slice off the bottom. Slice down the middle of the bulb lengthwise and then very finely chop across the fennel. Place in a salad bowl and add the juice of the limes and oil. Season to taste.
ORANGE BRAISED FENNEL
2 fennel bulbs
1/2 cup of orange juice
1 tsp saffron
1 cinnamon stick
4 cardamom seeds
1/4 cup of chicken stock
1/4 cup of olive oil.
Cut the fennel bulbs into quarters lengthwise and place in a baking dish. Add the other ingredients and cover the dish with tin foil. Bake for about one hour. This is delicious hot or cold and great with poultry or lamb.
FENNEL AND PARMESAN GRATIN
Adapted from the River Cafe Cookbook.
4 fennel bulbs
50g parmesan cheese
2 cloves of garlic
Slice the fennel bulbs lengthwise into two to four pieces depending on the size of the fennel. Blanch.
Mix together the cream, half of the cheese and the garlic and toss the blanched fennel in the mixture. Place the fennel and cream mixture in a shallow baking dish, cover with tin foil and bake for 15 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius. Remove the foil and bake for a further five to 10 minutes until the cheese has turned golden.