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Fennel

Why Eat It
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

With its rounded pale green bulb, short stems, and feathery green leaves, fennel could be mistaken for a plump bunch of celery. The texture, too, is similar, but fennel's flavor emphatically sets it apart from celery and other stalk vegetables. The overlapping layers of bulb, the stems, and the leaves all impart a mild sweet flavor akin to licorice or anise. Because of its taste, fennel is called "anise" in many markets; however, the vegetable is an entirely different plant from the herb anise, which is grown for its seeds and the oil secreted by its leaves (both of which are used as flavorings.) A member of the parsley family, fennel is also known as sweet fennel, Florence fennel, and, finocchio. Widely used in Italian cooking and the cuisine of Provence, fennel is becoming more widely appreciated in the U.S. Like celery, it is filling and yet very low in calories, so that it provides an excellent snack food for weight watchers. It is also well suited to cooking.

Availability

Fennel is available through the fall and winter at many supermarkets and greengrocers, especially in Italian neighborhoods.

Shopping

The fennel bulbs should be firm and clean, the stalks straight, and the feathery fronds fresh and green; if flowers are present on the stalks, the bulb is overmature. The bulb should be compact, with the stalks closely spaced rather than spread out. If the stalks have been cut off (which may indicate that the fennel is not perfectly fresh), the cut ends should be fresh looking, not dry and white. Avoid bulbs that show any brown spots or signs of splitting.

Storage

Store in the refrigerator crisper, where the vegetable should keep for three to four days.

Preparation

If you've bought a fennel bulb with the stalks attached, trim them off at the point where they meet the bulb. Set aside the stalks to use in soups and stews, and save the frondlike leaves to use as an herb (as you would use dillweed). Wash the fennel bulb and halve it. Trim the base (but not too closely, or the layers will fall apart), then cut the bulb as needed: into slices (vertically), diced, or cut into chunks for braising or use in soups, or into slivers or sticks for stir-frying, sauteing, or eating raw. You can also carefully remove individual layers of the fennel bulb and cut each into strips or squares. If slicing the bulb vertically, leave the central core intact so that it holds the layers together; if halving, quartering, or slivering the bulb, cut out the dense core, or cut around it and discard.

Fennel adapts well to several cooking methods, all of which soften its crispness and mellow its rather striking flavor.

Baking: Cut small fennel bulbs in half lengthwise, quarter larger bulbs. Saute in a small amount of olive oil in an ovenproof skillet for five minutes. Add enough cooking liquid to moisten. Cover tightly and bake in a 350°F oven until just tender and beginning to brown. If desired, uncover the baking dish toward the end of the cooking time, to allow any excess liquid to evaporate, then sprinkle the fennel with breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan, and brown under the broiler before serving. Cooking time: about 35 minutes.

If you prefer, cut bulbs as suggested above. Place on a sheet of aluminum foil large enough to overwrap the fennel. Add 2 sliced cloves garlic, 1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary, and 2 teaspoons olive oil. Wrap tightly and place on a jelly-roll pan. Cooking time: about 35 minutes.

Braising: Place fennel slices, or halved or quartered small fennel bulbs, in a saucepan and add just enough boiling liquid to barely cover the vegetable. You can use a variety of braising liquids: broth, tomato sauce, or wine (diluted in a one-to-one ratio with water); add lemon zest, garlic, or onion for extra flavor. Simmer uncovered, turning occasionally, until the fennel is tender, adding more liquid if necessary. Braised fennel is delicious hot, warm, or chilled. Cooking time: 15 to 20 minutes.

Sauteing: Cut fennel into slivers and saute in a small amount of olive oil until crisp-tender. Add a small amount of stock, tossing and stirring the fennel frequently until tender. For extra flavor, cook chopped onion and garlic along with fennel. A sprinkling of lemon juice and zest makes a nice finishing touch. Cooking time: 10 to 15 minutes.

Steaming: Fennel steamed until crisp-tender can be covered with your favorite sauce or marinated in a vinaigrette, chilled, and served as a salad. To steam it, place sliced or cubed fennel in a vegetable steamer and cook over boiling water until just tender. Cooking time: 15 minutes.

Raw: To use fennel in salads, thinly slice and toss with a sprightly lemon dressing or the dressing of your choice. If you like, serve with a sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese.

Nutrition Chart

Fennel/1 cup raw slices

27
Total fat (g)
0.2
Saturated fat (g)
0
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0
Dietary fiber (g)
2.7
1
Carbohydrate (g)
6
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
45


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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