All About Fennel & How to Cook With It
On the whole, the foods that restaurants deliver to the consumer use basically the same ingredients that a home cook would use. There is, however, a short list of ingredients that are commonly used in commercial kitchens that are underused by home cooks.
If you ask Anthony Bourdain, one of those ingredients is shallots. And if you ask me, another of those ingredients is fennel. Fennel is one of the most underutilized vegetables I can think of, and it also happens to be one of my favorites.
You’ll find it in many of my recipes including:
- Braised Chilean Sea Bass
- Chicken Thighs with Sausage & Braised Fennel
- Braised Pork Chops with Fennel
- Shrimp with Fennel, Tomato & Pernod Sauce
What is Fennel?
Fennel is a plant whose leaves look very much like dill thin, waving frondy filaments of bright green. Not only are the leaves edible, but so are the seeds, bulbs and even the pollen.
If you have never tried fennel, let me see if I can describe the flavor to you. Fennel bulb, which looks kind of like a cross between an onion and the base of a bunch of celery, has a sweet, perfumy, anise-like flavor.
Rather than making food taste like licorice, though, fennel imparts a light, bright spring-like quality to foods. Plus, fennel is good for you. It contains Vitamins A and C, as well as potassium and calcium.
How Can Fennel Be Used at Home
When raw, the texture of fennel is cold and crisp. Take advantage of the refreshing crispness by thinly slicing the bulb into salads or slaws.
When caramelized, fennel tastes almost like licorice candy, and it acts as a wonderful flavor base as part of a mire poix, lending dishes an “I can’t quite figure out what that flavor is, but man is it good quality! Fennel is also very tasty on its own, sautéed or even grilled.
Fennel leaves can be chopped up and used to flavor any number of dishes, either hot or cold, much like you would use any other culinary herb. Use it in dishes that also feature citrus, or in any dish that reminds you of spring.
Of course, fennel fronds also make a beautiful, feathery garnish for dishes containing fennel.
Fennel seeds are one of the primary spices in Italian sausage, and they are also used frequently in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine.
Fennel pollen is one of those ingredients that is almost exclusively used in fine dining kitchens. (I’m not even sure where you would find it.) It has a very concentrated, musky-anise aroma and flavor.
A little goes a long way, but if you are a fan of fennel and can get your hands on some, mix some into a cream sauce or use it as part of a dry spice rub.
I really hope I am conveying how wonderful fennel is as an ingredient. If you already love it, here are some ideas for new ways to enjoy it. If you’ve not tried it yet, please give it a try.
If you do not like licorice, you might not want fennel to play a starring role on your dinner plate, but do consider using it to build background flavor in a stew or a braise. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Fennel Pollen Cream Sauce for Pasta
- Heat a wide sauce pan over medium-low heat. Add the fat and wait until the butter melts before adding the minced shallots and garlic.
- Season with a heavy pinch of salt and white pepper.
- Stir in the fennel pollen.
- Sweat shallot and garlic until softened and translucent but not browned.
- Whisk in the half and half and bring to a simmer. Do not let come to a full rolling boil, but reduce by ¼.
- Off the heat, stir in the Parmesan, a bit at a time until it is all melted. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Cook any short pasta (ziti, rigatoni, elbows, shells, etc) or filled pasta (tortellini, ravioli, etc) until done to your liking.
- Pour hot pasta into the sauce and toss to coat.
- Serve with some more grated Parmesan and maybe a sprinkling of chopped fennel frond.
Five Spice Powder
- 2 tablespoons black peppercorns
- 3 star anise pods
- 2 teaspoons fennel seed
- 6 whole cloves
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- Toast all spices in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant.
- Spread spices out onto foil or parchment to cool. Don’t leave them in the pan, because they will continue to cook and burn.
- Once cool, grind spices in a spice grinder or bladed coffee grinder until it is as fine as you can get it.
- Store covered in a cool, dark cabinet. Exposure to light will decrease the shelf life.
Fennel and Jicama Slaw with Citrus Dressing
- 1 medium fennel bulb sliced very thin (use a mandoline, if you have one)
- 1 small jicama julienned
- ¼ cup chopped basil
- 2 tablespoons fennel frond
- 1 tablespoon chopped mint
- 2 tablespoons orange juice
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1½ teaspoons honey
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Several drops of your favorite hot sauce to taste
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Combine the jicama, fennel, basil, fennel frond and mint in a bowl.
- In another bowl, whisk together the citrus juices, honey, mustard, salt, pepper and hot sauce. Continue whisking and stream in the oil.
- Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Toss the dressing with the slaw.
- Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.
- Trim fennel bulbs from stalks, reserving some fronds to chop for garnish. Cut bulbs lengthwise into ⅓-½ inch slices. Do not trim root end, so the slices stay together.
- Heat a sauté pan until hot. Add the oil and wait until the oil shimmers before adding the fennel.
- Season with some salt and pepper and sear fennel to caramelize, turning once. The fennel should be a rich golden brown.
- Add the wine and scrape the bottom of the pan to deglaze.
- When the wine has reduced to a syrup, add the chicken stock and put the lid on the pan.
- Braise over very low heat for about ten to fifteen minutes, or until the fennel is very tender.
- Before serving, garnish with chopped fennel fronds.