I am not a licorice-lover — far from it — but I have become fanatic about the anise-scented fennel.
The first hint came when I had it slow-braised with a roast and reduced to a mild, sweet, and meltingly delicious vegetable with just the barest hint of anise. The next step was roasting it with Parmesan cheese, which only a fool would turn down. My conversion experience came when I was presented with thinly sliced raw fennel, served in a bowl of lemony ice water, after a meal in Sorrento, Italy.
As a confirmed fennel fanatic and evangelist, my tip for first-timers or skeptics is to try fennel that has been mellowed out through cooking. Chances are you will soon find the sweet, delicately nuanced aroma and flavor of raw fennel also enticing.
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Five reasons to love fennel
- It’s versatile. You can’t really go wrong with fennel, whether you cook it or eat it raw. And all three parts — the base, stalks and feathery leaves — are edible. The bulb is the part most commonly used, cooked with meat, braised on its own, or used in salads or on sandwiches. The stalks can be used for soups, stocks and stews, while the leaves can be used as you would herbs such as parsley, dill, or tarragon.
- Easy to prepare and enjoy raw. You can slice fennel thinly, and mix with a vinaigrette on its own, or toss with a green salad or potato salad. It’s fast, simple, and delicious.
- Easy to cook. For those who don’t like the anise scent and flavor of fennel, try cutting the bulbs into large chunks, and roast them under a chicken or other meat or fish. And no one I know can resist fennel lightly sautéed in wine, cooked in cream, or roasted in the oven with Parmesan.
- Low calories and high nutrition. One cup of sliced fennel has only 27 calories, but large amounts of vitamin C, folate and potassium.
- Its phytochemicals promote health and may fight cancer. Fennel contains many health-promoting phytochemicals, naturally occurring chemical compounds such as the antioxidants rutin and quercitin, and other kaempferol glycosides that also give fennel strong antioxidant activity. But perhaps the most interesting phytonutrient in fennel is anethole — the primary component of its volatile oil, which has antimicrobial and antifungal properties. In animal studies, the anethole in fennel has reduced inflammation and helped prevent cancer. One study showed that anethole stopped breast cancer cells from growing. Researchers have also proposed a biological mechanism that may explain these anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects by showing how anethole is involved in the shutting down of an intercellular signaling system, thus stopping tumor growth.
Of course, the main reason to love fennel is that it is delicious. One of the simplest ways to cook it is this recipe from Jane Grigson’s “Vegetable Book.” Grigson also turns out to be a fennel fanatic, and notes: “My favorite fennel dish, the best one of all by far. The simple additions of butter and Parmesan — no other cheese will do — show off the fennel flavor perfectly. The point to watch, when the dish is in the oven, is the browning of the cheese. Do not let it go beyond a rich golden-brown.”
Fennel Baked With Parmesan Cheese
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 6 servings as a side dish
6 heads fennel, trimmed, quartered
2 tablespoons butter
freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons (or more) grated Parmesan cheese
1. Cook the fennel in salted water until it is just barely tender.
2. Drain it well and arrange in a generously buttered gratin dish.
3. Be generous, too, with the pepper mill.
4. Sprinkle on the cheese.
5. Put into the oven at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is golden brown and the fennel is bubbling vigorously in buttery juices.
You can make this salad as simple or as fancy as you like. Adding sweet dates and salty capers or olives make it exotic, but when you have fresh fennel all you really need is a light vinaigrette.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 0 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
2 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced, by hand or with a mandoline
Black olives, capers, dates (about 2 tablespoons each, or to taste), optional
Juice of one lemon
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Rinse the fennel and slice very thinly. Also slice the dates and olives, if you’re adding them.
2. Toss the fennel with the dates, olives and capers.
3. Whisk the lemon juice and olive oil together with a pinch of salt and pepper.
4. Dress the salad and toss to coat well.
Main photo: Fennel in the field. Credit: Terra Brockman