The Vegetable Butcher Really Wants You to Give Fennel a Chance

published Jun 9, 2015
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(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

Fennel has some serious PR issues, I know. Its reputation has eaters on the defense, and I’ll agree, it isn’t so intuitive to cook. Some farm partners have told me they have had to stop growing fennel (this makes me sad) — their CSA members are not interested or simply don’t know what to do with it.

At my restaurant, if we mention “fennel” in a beautiful slaw or soup, some customers will steer clear. I’ve discovered some have never even tried fennel, and don’t plan on it. That’s when I become a little defensive. Tell me you don’t like fennel, and I’ll do my best to change your mind.

Tell me you don’t know what to do with fennel, and I’ll try to teach you a thing or two.

Here’s why I love fennel, and some of my favorite ways to prepare it — raw and cooked — including my all-time favorite, mind-changing fennel recipe. It’s a plea, a peace offering, a sincere effort to turn your impression of fennel around. And, if you are already a fennel lover (yeah, you’re with me), follow along for a real treat!

4 Reasons Why I Love Fennel

1. Fennel offers two vegetables in one! The crisp bulb comes with an herb you can keep in long feathery strands or chop finely to garnish anything and everything with sweet fennel flavor. You can make use of fennel stalks, too (make that three in one!) — they add wonderful richness to stock.

2. Fennel is gorgeous in its raw form. Shave it paper-thin, and enjoy its patterned flesh and beautiful shape, whether cut into strips or attached to the core and thinly sliced into fans. It adds visual and physical texture to whatever you make.

3. Fennel is a secret-weapon ingredient, always adding that special, what-is-that depth of flavor to dishes. Whether raw or cooked, it offers an abundance of unique flavor.

4. When you caramelize or braise fennel until it is meltingly tender, it becomes fragrant with a subtle hint of anise, and sweet. It’s so good, I would dare any naysayer to dispute its perfection.

4 Ways to Eat Raw Fennel

1. Tomato Salad: Try raw fennel with big cuts of heirloom tomatoes, olives, a fruity olive oil, vinegar, garlic, and herbs (including chopped fronds).

2. Marinated: Marinate fennel in orange juice and shallots (or crushed garlic), then whisk in olive oil. Pair the marinated fennel with spinach or arugula, orange segments, pistachios, and goat cheese or feta.

3. Shaved Thin: Shave fennel paper-thin and combine it with shredded green cabbage, apples, pecans, and a creamy curry dressing.

4. Crudité Platter: Serve fennel on a crudité platter with a rich, creamy dip.

5 Ways to Eat Cooked Fennel

1. Poach fennel: Simmer fennel in olive oil with tomatoes. (It is excellent tossed with pasta and mozzarella or served over fish.)

2. Use fennel as an accent in a soup: Simmer fennel and cauliflower in stock, purée it, and add a touch of butter and/or cream to make a delicious soup. Fennel is also excellent in a tomato-based soup.

3. Braise fennel: Sauté fennel slices in a couple tablespoons of olive oil and cook, stirring, until they begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and add enough vegetable stock to just barely cover the fennel. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the fennel is tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Garnish with a sprinkle of chopped fennel fronds.

4. Vegetarian stew: Cook fennel with soffritto, cannellini beans, tomatoes, and stock to make a thick and creamy stew to serve over polenta or thick pieces of garlic-rubbed toast.

5. Caramelize it: Make my ultimate, you-can’t-not-like-it fennel recipe: caramelized fennel with crème fraîche.

How to Make Caramelized Fennel with Crème Fraîche

Heat some olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until it shimmers. Add a couple thinly sliced fennel bulbs, toss to coat, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the fennel is golden brown and has softened almost completely, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in 1/4 to 1/3 cup crème fraîche until incorporated and warmed through. Stir in a pinch of chopped fennel fronds and serve.

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)