Fennel is a generous vegetable. It graces the table in spring and early summer, where it keeps company with asparagus and baby onions, and then again in fall, when it cozies up to eggplant and peppers, then apples and winter squash.
In supermarkets I often see bulbs of fennel tightly wrapped in plastic, their stalks lopped off. This is too bad, because fennel’s generous nature extends beyond the bulb. The entire plant is edible, from that fat white bulb, which can be roasted, sautéed, or tossed raw into salad, to the feathery tips, which can be minced and tossed into soups and sauces. The seeds, as you probably know, are used in Italian cooking to flavor everything from sausages to cookies. And fennel pollen has become an increasingly popular, though expensive, spice. It has a potent, savory flavor that carries with it a hint of curry.
In between are the stalks. For years I tossed these out on the assumption that they were too tough to eat. Chef John Coletta set me straight. Coletta is chef-partner at Quartino, a restaurant and wine bar in Chicago that specializes in small plates. He makes a spicy roasted fennel salad that utilizes both the bulb and the lower stalks. When roasted, the fat stalks caramelize and turn tender, adding an additional layer of flavor and texture to the salad. I tasted Coletta’s fennel salad a few years ago when I was working on Big Night In, and he kindly shared the recipe with me for the book.
You may have noticed I said lower stalks. That’s because the thinner stalks toward the top of the plant do indeed tend to be tough. But instead of throwing them out I use them to flavor vegetable and chicken broth.
What are your favorite uses for fennel?
(from Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian-Style)
- 3 medium fennel bulb and thick lower stalks, cut into thin 2-inch-long strips (reserve fronds and thin stalks for other uses)
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon thinly sliced red finger chile (such as cayenne or Thai chile)
- 1/3 cup raisins
- 1/3 cup sultanas (golden raisins)
- 1 cup apple juice
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 fresh bay leaf
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Heat the oven to 475 degrees F.
In a medium-sized bowl combine the fennel, 1/2 cup olive oil, the salt and pepper and toss until the fennel is completely coated with the oil and seasoning. Spread the mixture onto a rimmed baking sheet and place in the oven. Roast the fennel, turning it once or twice, until it is golden and lightly caramelized, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and let the fennel cool to room temperature.
In a medium-sized heavy-bottomed pot, combine the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil with the chile, raisins and sultanas, apple juice, white wine, and bay leaf. Set the pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook at a gentle simmer until the raisins are soft, about 15 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked raisins to a bowl and let cool. Discard the liquid and the bay leaf.
In a clean bowl, fold together the roasted fennel and cooked raisins with the lemon juice. Adjust the seasoning with additional salt and pepper if necessary. Transfer the salad to a serving bowl or platter and serve. The salad is good warm, at room temperature, or cold.