Fennel is a delicious herb most easily recognized for its strong licorice-like aroma and flavor. Indeed, fennel is a key component in the manufacturing of licorice, and it is favored by many Mediterranean chefs for its strong and unique flavor profile. All parts of the fennel plant can be used in cooking, from the sturdy bulb and stems to the delicate frilly fronds. Yet for those unfamiliar with fennel, its intense flavor can make it daunting to use or understand how to best incorporate the herb into their regular diet and recipes.
Fennel has many beneficial, medicinal properties that make it worth learning how to use in cooking. Fennel is known for stimulating the appetite and soothing digestive upset, particularly for cancer patients after going through radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Fennel has also been used to treat congestion, conjunctivitis and anemia. It is a good source of Vitamin C, fiber, potassium and manganese, which are all important to our health and nutrition. What follows are five simple ways you can prepare tasty side dishes, salads and main courses incorporating fennel. Try some of these for an interesting and exciting change of pace one evening, and soon fennel will surely become one of the staples of your regular diet as well.
1. Marinated Raw Fennel Salad
In Italy, fennel is often enjoyed in a very simple marinated salad or as an appetizer. Very thinly sliced raw fennel is marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and served at room temperature. The success of this dish of course hinges on the absolute freshness of the fennel and lemon and the use of the best quality extra virgin olive oil. For a more Sicilian variation, try combining the thin sliced fennel with orange slices, black olives and mint along with the olive oil and lemon juice. The combination of salty, sweet and herbaceous flavors is exceptionally tasty. Another great marinated salad idea is to combine matchstick-sliced fennel and apple in lemon juice and a mustard-based vinaigrette. In each of these recipes, only the fennel bulb is used, and a mandoline is recommended to get the fennel slices as thin as possible.
2. Oven-Roasted Mixed Vegetables with Fennel
Oven roasting serves to make the fennel sweeter and mellow some of its strong anise flavor. Combine wedges of fennel bulb with other vegetables such as red onions, bell peppers, zucchini and baby carrots in a roasting pan. Toss with kosher salt, fresh ground pepper, olive oil and a splash or two of balsamic vinegar. Roast in the oven at 400 degrees for 40-60 minutes, tossing the vegetables from time to time to ensure even cooking and testing for doneness. You might need to remove some vegetables sooner to prevent them from over-cooking. Serve the roasted vegetables as a wonderful side dish to a grilled steak, or chop them up and toss with pasta, cheese and additional olive oil for a wonderfully healthy pasta primavera.
3. Fennel Mashed Potatoes
Boring mashed potatoes can take on a new life when combined with fennel. Steam two or three fennel bulbs until tender, then puree them in a food processor with olive oil and half-and-half until creamy. Combine with cooked, mashed potatoes and season to taste. The fennel puree will add a richness to the mashed potatoes without the need to add butter or heavy cream, making this a healthier and more interesting side dish for all to enjoy.
4. Fish Soup with Fennel
Fish soup is a staple of Mediterranean cooking and often features a vegetable base of onions, garlic, celery, carrots, bell peppers and parsley sauteed in olive oil before the addition of tomatoes, spices, wine and mixed fish. For an exciting variation on traditional fish soup, substitute a fennel bulb for the onion and add the juice of an orange as well. The delicate fronds of the fennel can be added at the last moment for a fresh, aromatic touch just before serving. Fennel will take a fish soup from ordinary to extraordinary with very little effort at all.
5. Whole Fish Stuffed with Fennel
Fennel and fish is a classic combination, no doubt due to fennel’s origins in the Mediterranean. Cooking a whole fish such as a sea bass or bronzino can be a daunting task to many chefs, but here’s a quick and delicious way to impress dinner guests with your culinary skills. Cut a fennel bulb and white onion into thin slices and saute in olive oil until just tender and beginning to caramelize. Wash and pat dry your cleaned whole fish, brush with olive oil and season inside and out with salt and pepper. Fill the fish cavity with the sauteed onions, fennel and wedges of fresh lemon. Wrap the fish in aluminum foil and bake in the oven until the fish is cooked through and flaky – 20 minutes at 350 degrees should suffice for a smaller whole fish of 1-2 pounds, but more time may be needed for larger fish. The fennel and onions will make the fish wonderfully aromatic, and the lemon will help keep the fish juicy while cooking.
* “Fennel: Great Source of Surprising Health Benefits”, CompleatMother.com.
* “Fennel”, WHFoods.
* St, Pierre Brian. The Wine Lover Cooks Italian: Pairing Great Recipes with the Perfect Glass of Wine. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2005. Print.
* Personal experience.