Fennel

HELP! I bought this pretty thing at the market and don’t know what to do with it!

Do you find yourself uttering these words as often as I do? Never fear, veg:ology is here to help. If you’re new to the blog, you may not have realized that I am an ingredient geek. I love picking up new fruits, vegetables, and other ingredients and learning about how to make them into delicious (and sometimes disastrous) dishes. The farmers’ market is the best place for uncommon produce hunting, and now that the weather has warmed up, it’s open season. I often highlight my finds here, give you a little summary of my food research, and then offer a recipe and play-by-play of how it went. It’s a good day when no one has to call the fire department. It’s a great day when my guests ask for seconds.

So, what to do with fennel?

I have been intrigued by fennel ever since I first heard this versatile plant’s claim to fame: it is a vegetable, herb, and spice. That’s right, all three. The white leafy bulb is a vegetable, the wispy fronds are an herb, and the seeds are a spice. The whole plant has a strong licorice smell. When cooked, the flavor of the bulb mellows out as onions do, yet the fronds retain their strong sweet aniseed flavor. There are several ways to prepare the different parts of the plant if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on a few. I picked mine up from Pleitez Produce at the SOJ Market; fresh fennel can also be found locally at Ellwood Thompson’s.

Fun fact: fennel is one of the primary ingredients in absinthe.

However, that is not what I made with it (bummer…).

Fennel is indigenous to the Mediterranean, although India is the largest global producer of fennel today. It can be successfully grown in many parts of North America, and Virginia is no exception as I have seen it in several booths at the farmers’ market in the last few weeks. The bulb is crisp and sweet and can be eaten either raw or cooked. I had only tasted fennel raw in salads or sides before experimenting with it on my own. World’s Healthiest Foods suggests that you serve it sauteed with onions, braised, or raw and sliced on a salad or sandwich.

Fennel is an excellent source of vitamin C, and it also provides a good amount of fiber and potassium. Throughout history, fennel has been used to cure various ailments, including digestive problems, weight gain, and poor eyesight. Some believe it is a potential homeopathic remedy for hypertension. It is also used globally as a breath freshener. Considering all the reported health benefits, why not give fennel a try yourself?

I chose to use this recipe from Bon Appetit because it used both the bulb and the fronds of the fennel plant. I couldn’t bear to toss out all those beautiful wispy stems so I threw them in this dish.

Olive Oil Roasted Tomatoes with Fennel and White Beans (click for recipe)

You start by slicing the fennel into wedges and sauteing them in olive oil in a very hot pan.

Then you combine with tomatoes, fresh oregano, garlic, and crushed red pepper to roast in the oven. After about 30 minutes in the oven, you add cannelini beans and chopped fennel fronds, bake for 5 more minutes, and season with salt and pepper.

I served this late dinner on a balmy night with large glasses of chilled prosecco. Not the perfect pairing, but my friend Jessica and I were feeling fancy and wanted a little bubbly to cool off with. Overall it was a well-executed experiment.

On another night, I sliced a bulb and roasted it with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Then I topped it with Parmesan and served it alongside quinoa veggie burgers for a more casual meal. The Olive Oil Roasted Tomatoes and Fennel with White Beans was a very nice dinner, but honestly I preferred the no-fuss preparation on burger night. Sometimes simple is better.

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