Thursday, March 13, 2014

Kitchen Garden Recipes: Fennel

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is not something I'd had much experience with either in my garden or my kitchen until a few years ago.  Although I have always been a fan of licorice, it was hard for me to conceive of a way to use an herb that has a mild anise flavor reminiscent of licorice candy in savory cooking.  And since I'm allergic to seafood, one of the more common pairings with this herb, it just never made my top twenty herb list.  On the rare occasions when I needed fennel seed for a recipe, I used seed that I purchased in small amounts at a local specialty foods market.

Several years ago we added the Copper Leaf variety of  it to our herb garden - more for it's beautiful foliage than for any plans to actually use it in cooking - but it never performed well, and when it failed to sprout one spring after having struggled for several years, we didn't replant.  

Fennel bulbs - in the supermarket the roots are removed.
I'd seen fennel bulbs in the supermarket and had watched Chef Ann Burrell prepare it on television. But I still struggled with the idea of a licorice-flavored vegetable as a side dish.  I had little interest in working with fennel as a vegetable until we received several large bulbs in our organic vegetable farm share.  After researching ways to prepare it, I combined several suggestions from other chefs into my own personal version of caramelized fennel.  Overnight I became a fennel devotee, as did everyone in the family after I served this wonderful vegetable as a side dish.

Learning to properly cut fennel was Job One.  The instructions I found ran the gamut from using the entire bulb and lower portions of the stalk to cutting out the core of the bulb and using only the "best" part of the plant.  I read several articles that suggested the stalks and core could be tough and opted to go with a more drastic approach to the bulb.

Fennel from the farm came with the root still attached.  We had had a cold and rainy summer so when it was harvested, the bulbs were smaller than what I'd seen at the local market.  

The first time I prepared it, I used only the bulbs in the farm share. I was experimenting and didn't know how much cooked vegetable they would yield, nor how receptive my usually vegetable-avoidant husband and son would be to this new addition to our menu. 

I was not prepared for how warmly received this "new" (to us) vegetable was.  When I prepared it again, I added store-bought bulbs to those we received with our farm share.

Cutting the fennel requires a very sharp knife.  I personally favor a boning knife that I sharpen with each use.  It allows me to easily carve out the core at the base of the bulb, trim stalks, and slice the bulb.

The first thing I generally do is cut off the stalks and roots.  I reserve some of the best branches of the fine, feathery foliage to add to the bulb during cooking.  

The core can comprise a large portion of a small bulb so choose the widest ones available
Next, I trim the sides where the stalks were cut close to the bulb.  I've tried it both ways and find the stalks to be tough and not as flavorful and sweet as the bulb.  If I've left a stub of the stalk, I trim it away.

Once I've trimmed the sides, I remove any significantly damaged or discolored outer layers.  Older bulbs may show some rust along the edges of the layers.  You can this in the bulbs in the above photograph.  This can be sliced away;  it usually only requires removing a very shallow sliver of the edge of that layer. Then I rinse the bulb in cold water just to remove any dirt that might still be present and to clean it before slicing and cooking.

Once the bulb is trimmed, clean, and ready to be sliced, I cut the bulbs in half through the middle from front to back (the long way) to expose the core.

Bulbs trimmed and cored and ready to be sliced.
The core is removed by cutting a V-shaped wedge along it's length to remove the innermost part of it.  It's not necessary to remove the entire core.  I leave enough to hold the bulb intact and make it easier to slice the bulb into thin strips for cooking.

Although many cooking sources say that it can be left intact and sliced and cooked with the rest of the bulb, I find it tough and fibrous and so I always trim it out.

The bulb halves are now ready to live.  I turn each half flat side down on the cutting board and thinly slice them from the bottom of the bulb to the top.  The cut slices almost resemble celery in texture.

I cook fennel in a 50/50 mixture of olive oil and butter.   I use just enough to cover the bottom of the frying pan and lightly coat the slices.  Even when I am making a large batch, usually no more than a quarter cup of each is needed for a medium-large pan of fennel (roughly 6 cups of sliced fennel bulbs).  If I find I need more, I add more butter, a tablespoon at a time.

Adding fresh fennel leaves and dried fennel seed increases the flavor
Heat the pan, oil and butter and when the butter is completely melted, add the fennel and saute on medium heat.  You want the vegetable to slowly brown and carmelize, not quickly brown and turn to mush.

Rinse some of the lacy green fronds and roll them in a paper towel to dry them.  With kitchen shears snip the fronds into pieces 1/4 to 1/2 inch in length and add to the pan.  This enhances the flavor of the fennel.  I also add a tablespoon or two of dried fennel seed to add another layer of flavor to the dish as well.  Agenerous pinch of sea salt rounds out the flavor profile. 

With a large spatula or silicon spoon, turn the fennel until the oil and butter are evenly distributed, then add a small amount of sugar (not artificial sweetener) to help the fennel caramelize.   I add one or two tablespoons for 3-4 cups of raw fennel and two or three tablespoons for a large batch - more than 5-6 cups of raw fennel.  Even though the fennel is sweet in and of itself, the sugar helps the fennel to caramelize.

Ready to serve, the cooked fennel is a light golden brown and fork tender.
Continue to turn the fennel in the pan occasionally and let it slowly cook to a light golden brown.  When it's ready to serve, it should be tender but not crunchy.  A large pan (4-5 cups) takes about 20 minutes to cook through on medium or medium-low heat.

Although my family and I love the sweetness of caramelized fennel, I found several recipes that mentioned adding a small amount of  lemon juice to cut the sweetness and brighten the flavor.

It's important when selecting fennel bulbs to choose the widest ones (laterally, from side to side) that you can find, since the core makes up a considerable amount of the bulb.   I look for the freshest bulbs with the least amount of rust.   And for those time when you wish you had an extra fennel bulb and need to stretch the recipe, add sweet white onions.  Vidalia onions work exceptionally well but I have also used generic white onions with a tasty result.  In fact, my family said they could not tell the difference.  Peel and quarter one or two large onions and slice in the same manner as the fennel.  Add to the raw fennel and cook as above.  The onions will acquire the anise flavor during cooking.

I've used this as a side dish with chicken, pork and lamb.  Although my favorite herb references indicate that it's often paired with seafood, my seafood allergy has prevented me from experimenting with fish dishes flavored with fennel. 


  1. Wouldn't have thought of it as a separate dish. Leave it to you to find a way to make something good though.
    Cher Sunray Gardens

  2. Cher, I can't take all that much credit LOL.... when I picked up our farm share and saw this stuff in it, I thought, OMG, what am I going to do with it???!!! I had never seen it before, never tasted it, had no idea what to do with it. Thank goodness for the Internet!

  3. Cathy, never tried Fennel on the plate, but the bronze one looked really good in our Aberdeen garden.

    1. Alistair, if you see it at the grocery or farmer's market, definitely try it. It is amazing -- and this is from someone who is not crazy about trying new things!

  4. We have been trying different veggies this year ... getting daring in retirement. I've never tried fennel and will have to give your recipe a try.

    1. Linda, You will love it! The flavor is very light but wonderful. It's become one of our favorites... great with lamb and with sausage as well. Enjoy! And thanks for dropping by. ;)


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