Preparing a fine feast of fennel; Menu: Sweet and delicate, seductive and mellow, this vegetable with the light licorice taste can add irresistible flavor to a variety of dishes.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Fresh fennel can be a cooking conundrum.

Sometimes the supermarkets label it "anise" or "sweet anise." But it's not.

Sometimes, because of its feathery, dark green tops, folks think it's dill. But it's not.

No wonder fennel rookies are confused.

Often hiding between the leeks and the cabbage, it's the green-tinged-but-almost-white bulb with celery-like stalks sprouting in spoke-like fashion at the top. The stalks are adorned with delicate, fern-like, dark green leaves.

It may look a little wacky, but once you've eaten fennel and savored its gentle, sweet flavor, reminiscent of mild licorice, you'll never be misled by erroneous labels again.

Its subtle taste is seductive. Habit-forming.

But then there's the fennel-trimming mystery to solve. Do those frilly tops get pruned? The recipe says to cut it into thin slices, but does that include both the stalks and the bulb?

In most cases, it's the fleshy bulb at the base you're after. The spunky stems that sprout at the top of the bulb (that look like rounded stalks of celery) are stringy and can be tough. I prefer to use the stalks for flavoring broths and sauces, straining and discarding them after long, slow simmering. Reserve the fragrant greenery at the top of the stalks (this is the part that is mistaken for dill) for a garnish or a last-minute flavor enhancer.

* Fennel Trimming 101: First remove and discard any browned layers. Trim off stalks at the bulb. Trim bottom end (but not too much or the layers will come apart) and discard. To cut into strips, cut the bulb in half lengthwise. Place cut-side down; cut in half lengthwise again. (You'll see a white core in the center; generally it's fairly small and doesn't need to be removed, but if it's large, you can cut it out with a small paring knife.) Cut into crosswise slices. The strips can be left whole or diced, depending on how you plan to use it. Easy.

* Buying know-how: When selecting fennel, look for well-developed bulbs that are crisp with no sign of browning or splitting. The stalks should look healthy and the leaves should be bright green and perky, not wilted. Refrigerate it in the crisper, wrapped tightly in a plastic bag, up to five days (at which point you can trim off the stalks and leaves for longer storage). With long storage, there is some flavor loss.

* Felicitous fennel, raw or cooked: Although it's delicious served raw as an appetizer (cut into sticks and served with a dip) or in a salad, fennel is enormously versatile when cooked. Called finocchio in Italian, or fenouil in French, this aromatic vegetable is an essential ingredient in many mouthwatering Mediterranean dishes. In France, whole fish are grilled over fennel stalks (for a similar effect, oven-bake fish over sliced fennel). In Italy, diced fennel is used in pasta sauces or steamed and tossed with fresh herbs and a simple vinaigrette.

It can be braised, sauteed, baked or steamed. Cooking makes the flavors mellow, so often folks who are lukewarm about it raw can be wild about it cooked. Here are 10 fast ways to enjoy it:

* Tuna surprise: Finely chopped raw fennel gives tuna salad some crunch and pizazz; fold in some chopped fennel tops (the part that looks like fresh dill) for color. It is especially good for tuna melts.

* Beef stew with style: Long, slow cooking makes wedges of fennel tender and tame. This aromatic, vegetable-studded stew fills the kitchen with delicious fennel perfume. Recipe follows.

* Cure for the wintertime blues: A winter salad of mixed greens, baby spinach, fennel and sausage is irresistible. Cook Italian sausage, either on the grill or in a skillet (brown on all sides, then lower heat and cook slowly until completely cooked). Toss a mixture of baby lettuces, some baby spinach (the kind that is sold in cellophane bags) and oh-so-thinly sliced trimmed fennel with enough vinaigrette (two parts olive oil to one part cider vinegar, mixed with a little Dijon mustard, salt and pepper) to lightly coat the leaves. Place on dinner plates. Cut sausage into bite-size pieces and arrange on top. Garnish with shavings of Parmesan cheese.

* Fennel couscous, a bed for "broiled anything": Couscous loaded with sauteed fennel is delectable topped with broiled fish fillets such as salmon. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large saucepan on medium-high heat; add 1 large fennel bulb (trimmed and diced) and 2 yellow crookneck squash (diced). Cook until tender-crisp, stirring frequently, about 4 minutes. Add 2 1/2 cups chicken broth and bring to a boil. Stir in salt, pepper and 1 1/3 cups plain couscous. Cover and remove from heat. Let stand 5 minutes. Meanwhile, broil 4 (4-ounce to 6-ounce) salmon fillets until just cooked through. Toss couscous with 4 thinly sliced green onions and some roughly chopped fennel leaves. Serve salmon fillets on mounds of couscous. If desired, top with a fresh tomato relish made by tossing 6 roma tomatoes (diced) with 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon fresh minced oregano and salt (to taste).

* The Ain't-Anise Fennel Salad: You really get the taste of licorice in this delicious salad made with raw fennel, apples, pecans and blue cheese. In a large bowl, toss 1 to 2 large sliced, trimmed fennel bulbs, 1 large, tart, green apple (cored and thinly sliced), 3 cups of bibb lettuce (torn into bite-size pieces), 1/4 cup toasted pecans and 2 ounces of crumbled blue cheese. Toss with enough olive oil to lightly coat the ingredients. Add 1 teaspoon cider vinegar and garlic salt to taste; toss. Serve immediately.

* Pasta With Fennel and Olives: Cook 1 1/2 cups farfalle (bow-tie pasta) until al dente; drain. In a large skillet, saute 1 1/2 cups diced fennel in 2 tablespoons olive oil until tender. Add 1/2 cup pitted imported black olives, such as kalamata or Nicoise, a pinch of dried red pepper and 1 teaspoon rice vinegar. Cook until heated through. Toss with pasta. Add 2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley, 1 tablespoon minced fennel tops and salt to taste; toss.

* Scalloped Fennel and Potatoes: A delectable side dish with ham, roast chicken or lamb that's good enough to be the main event. It can be baked one day in advance and cooled completely before being chilled, then stored covered in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature and reheat, covered. Recipe follows.

* Super scoopers: Served crispy-raw, the outer layers of fennel make great edible shovels for cold, cheesy dips (blue cheese is a favorite). The biggest layers need to be cut in thirds lengthwise. Smaller layers can be cut in half.

* Baked with cheese: For a no-fuss side dish, cut fennel bulbs in fourths and place them in a single layer in a baking pan. Dot with butter, season with salt and pepper. Pour dry white wine to a 1/2 -inch depth. Cover and bake in a 325-degree oven until tender, about 25 minutes. Top with generous shavings of Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle with chopped fennel leaves.

* Cream O'Fennel: Pureed fennel-potato-leek soup is wonderful. Simmer 2 fennel bulbs (diced), 2 medium leeks (white part only, chopped) and 1 large russet potato (peeled and diced) in 6 cups of chicken broth until veggies are tender (about 30 minutes). Puree in batches in food processor fitted with the metal blade or in blender. Stir in 1/3 cup heavy whipping cream; season to taste with salt and white pepper. Ladle into bowls and garnish each bowl with a sprig of fennel leaves.

Beef Stew With Fennel

Serves 6

1 1/4 pounds beef stew meat, cut into 1/2 - to 3/4 -inch cubes

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided use

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 large onions, diced

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

1 cup beef broth, divided use

1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup dry red wine

3 small red potatoes, cut in half

2 large fennel bulbs, trimmed and cut into sixths

6 small carrots, peeled and trimmed

1/2 wedge cabbage, roughly shredded

1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme

3 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley

salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Pat meat dry with paper towels. In a large, flameproof casserole, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil on medium-high heat. Add meat and cook, turning occasionally, until browned on all sides, 5-8 minutes. Sprinkle with flour and toss.

Add remaining olive oil and onion. Cook until onion is softened, stirring occasionally, 3-4 minutes. Add vinegar and about 2 tablespoons of the broth. Scrape bottom of pan to release browned bits from bottom of pan.

Remove from heat and add remaining broth, tomato paste and red wine.

Return to heat and add remaining ingredients, except parsley, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and cover. Place in middle of preheated oven. Bake 1 1/4 hours.

Stir in parsley, salt and pepper. Serve.

Per serving: 292 calories; 11 grams fat; 3.1 grams saturated fat; 62 milligrams cholesterol; 415 milligrams sodium; 34 percent calories from fat

Scalloped Fennel and Potatoes

Serves 10

butter for greasing baking pan

2 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream, divided use

1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1 1/2 cups chicken broth

salt to taste

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 large fennel bulbs, trimmed and cut into 1/4 -inch slices

3 pounds yellow-fleshed potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, peeled and cut into /-inch slices

1/3 cup unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly butter a 3-quart gratin (oval) baking dish (about 15 by 10 by 2 inches).

In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, process 2 cups of the cream and the flour until smooth. Pour into large bowl; add garlic, broth, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, nutmeg and pepper.

Divide fennel into two portions. Divide potatoes into three portions. In prepared gratin pan, arrange one portion of potatoes (spreading them out evenly) and top with one portion of fennel. Cover with half the cream mixture. Layer in another portion of potatoes and fennel. Top with remaining cream mixture.

Add another portion of potatoes, overlapping them. Push them down to submerge them in cream mixture.

Melt butter and drizzle over top of potatoes. Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and pour 1/2 cup cream evenly over top. Season with salt and pepper. Bake 30 more minutes or until tops are golden and potatoes are tender. If desired, garnish with some dark-green, feathery fennel tops.

Advance preparation: Can be baked one day in advance and cooled completely before being chilled, covered. Bring to room temperature and reheat, covered.

Per serving: 393 calories; 29.2 grams fat; 3.1 grams saturated fat; 99 milligrams cholesterol; 527 milligrams sodium; 67 percent calories from fat

Pub Date: 02/10/99

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