I hear a lot of complaints, among those of my friends and relatives who subscribe to CSAs, about weekly baskets arriving at the doorstep with surprise odd vegetables in unusually large amounts, and what the heck do you do with it all? I’ve never experienced that myself–I’m my own worst (or best) CSA challenge. So I can’t really blame this dilemma on anyone else, because I do my own shopping at my local greengrocer’s. And because the prices are low and the vegetables generally better than what I can get at the supermarket, I sometimes go a little overboard. Fresno tomatoes, when they’re in, are so good I end up with a 7 or 8 lb sack of them every week while I can. If I had more room in the fridge (oh, sacrilege! but they’re already so ripe it doesn’t hurt them), I’d buy even more. An overload of good tomatoes is no problem. However…
This week’s hot purchase: fresh fennel at a fabulous–too-fabulous?–price. Fifty cents apiece for large, clean-looking fennel bulbs with about two feet of stalk attached. They’re never less than two dollars apiece in the supermarket, and usually more like three.
So of course I couldn’t resist. I bought FOUR. Yeah. Two dollars total. For what turned out to be more than five pounds of useable produce, because if the fennel’s fresh, it’s all good eating. After washing and cutting it up into useable sections (only a 10-minute operation, surprisingly; fennel’s pretty cooperative for a big frondy vegetable), I actually weighed everything on our food scale.
Three pounds of bulbs for salads or grilling or whatever, two pounds of cleaned stalks chopped into celery-stick-length batons, and about six ounces of the cleaned chopped fronds to use as anise-to-dill-like herbs in tomato vegetable soup, fish, etc.
But how to use it all in a small household? We have only three people, and I’m the one who likes the anise-y taste of fennel most. Can I freeze some of it for later use (other than the fronds, which I did)? Are we going to be stuck eating it every day for weeks? How long before it starts going bad? What the heck was I thinking?
But it’s enough, and cheap enough, that I get to play around with it. Maybe I can find something good and even original to do with it that doesn’t require long roasting steps (Italian), stewing, or cheese-and-cream-filled gratin-type disguises (French) for the anise flavor, because really, for that you could have just bought celery.
The most obvious thing to do with fennel is slice it up and nosh on it raw. The first time I ever ate it was at the home of a large Moroccan Jewish family up in the north of Israel. The mother, who invited me over for Shabbat lunch, started the meal with hraime, fish steaks (served cold, thank g-d) in a garlicky broth with enough evil birds’ eye chiles floating in it that the younger children (all the ones under 20, anyhow) started whimpering. “Only one pepper!” their mother replied, but none of them were fooled. I, the self-conscious guest just out of college, took the first bite and nearly fell off my chair as all the brothers and sisters laughed. Luckily the rest of the lunch was pretty unspiced–brisket, long-cooked eggs, farro with chickpeas, a lot of little cooked and raw vegetable salad dishes. I was still recovering from the “appetizer” though; I reached repeatedly for both water and the sliced fennel. Actually, I miss Esther’s hraime still, these many years later…
But mostly you don’t want to just gnaw on raw fennel for relief from the evil chiles. Fennel is pretty. Salads with sliced fennel bulb, endive, grapefruit or orange sections, and sometimes Greek-type olives, red onion, avocado or pomegranate seeds have become a dime-a-dozen standard in all the glossiest food magazines. My mother-in-law served one of these last year at Thanksgiving, and it was okay, but the fennel didn’t really stand out, for some reason. I wanted something a little simpler and more distinctive as an impromptu fennel salad, and this is what I came up with first.
The Italian prunes I made into jam last week weren’t the last plums of the season after all; a new batch of red plums arrived along with the fennel this week. So I tried a quick salad of them with some of the fennel bulb sliced vertically and added a sprig or so of mint–really good and fresh. The anise flavor really sets off the tart plum, and the fresh mint gives it a peppery contrast that just works somehow (note to self: never use dried mint for something like this, it just tastes so dead by comparison). Freshly cracked black pepper would probably also go well with the fennel and plum, and crisp fall pears and some arugula would be another good combination with fennel–go with the season. So–something sweet, something peppery. Simple, right?
And yet something about fennel confounds my tastebuds. When I drizzled my usual Italy-style olive oil and vinegar on the salad, the vinegar brought out the saltier element in the fennel and dulled the fresh anise taste. So I might keep it undressed next time, or else try a mustard or bleu cheese dressing and see if that keeps the anise taste flying.
And why do they usually add Greek or Moroccan-type olives to fennel salads? I took a bite of olive and one of fennel to find out, feeling very Rémy-and-Émile about it, and decided the sharp brine of the olive overpowers the celery salt undertones in the fennel and intensifies the anise by contrast. Maybe then the oil and vinegar won’t wipe it out? A few orange slices and some red onion and a handful of romaine or arugula (cheaper and easier than endive for a bitter green, at least here in the US) and you’re in business salad-wise.
What else? Unfortunately, the raw stalks, which look an awful lot like celery, but round rather than U-shaped, are deceptive and definitely Not A Good Idea ™ for a dipping vegetable or party fare, because they’re even stringier than celery. They’re fine to chew on in the privacy of your own home, and very juicy, so they’re still worthwhile as long as you don’t mind spitting out a ball of string afterward. They’re not actually all that edible as a vegetable unless you slice them pretty thinly crosswise for a salad. Or cook them.
Well…what about cooking? Provençal and other French cookbooks often call for steaming fish atop a bed of fennel stalks. Presumably most of those get thrown away afterward, which is kind of a pity.
I decided to see if microwaving fennel would work to tenderize it, and it does, very quickly. Chop the stalks thinly, put them in a lidded microwaveable container, and microwave a minute or so until tender. You don’t need to add water because it’s got so much of its own. The microwaving tones down the anise flavor and brings out the salt or savory aspect–more like celery–as most cooking does. But it doesn’t kill the anise completely, and maybe preserves it better than long cooking. Then what?
Not everyone would want to make a hot sandwich filling with chopped steamed fennel stalks in it, and even I still prefer my usual lemon-and-garlic marinated artichoke hearts and a sprinkling of fennel seed instead of the following. But both thrift and serendipity sometimes dictate that you experiment and use up the vegetables you have in the fridge rather than running out to buy something new–at least for yourself. The chopped microwaved fennel stalks were actually pretty good in a quick sandwich melt with smoked cheese, fennel seed and chipotle salsa (thick garlicky marinara would also be good) all microwaved between two slices of leftover microwave-roasted eggplant for a minute. (Not showing the photo because frankly none of my eggplant sandwiches look all that pretty and this is no exception. They do taste dynamite, which is the important bit, but I’m still working on the party-worthiness looks factor, and probably some kind of grillmarks on the eggplant would probably help…)
More elegant and less like a demented Dagwood sandwich is grilled sliced fennel bulb. It’s just a much prettier shape to start with. But it’s also usually pretty tough stuff when grilled–dried out, slightly plasticky and a little hard to eat. David Tanis claimed in A Platter of Figs (I think, or maybe in his second book) that the secret to grilling or roasting sliced fennel without turning it into shoelaces is to steam it first. This is the first time I’ve ever had enough fresh fennel to make it worth a try.
I don’t currently have an outdoor grill, and you probably already know how I feel about boiling a pot of water for steaming, or running an oven in hot weather for roasting. So instead I microwaved half a sliced bulb as a test batch in a covered container for a couple of minutes to tenderize it. I figured pan-browning it afterward in a spoonful of olive oil, as for onions, would give me a sense of whether it’s worth doing on a larger scale. The fennel gave off a fair amount of liquid after microwaving and was translucent, like lightly wilted onion, but still somewhat firm at the base and still quite anise-y. I added the liquid to the pan with the fennel slices and let it cook down a minute or so to try and tenderize the root ends a little further. Once the liquid had cooked off, I added a pinch of sugar to start the slices browning and lowered the heat a little.
It took about 15 minutes on medium heat to brown well (much like well-browned sliced onions) and to get that fully-roasted texture, brown at all the edges and a little bit sunken and softened and wrinkly. The savory/salt aspect was there, but so was a reasonable hint of the anise–maybe the pinch of sugar helped preserve it?–and the browning gave it that roasted caramel/smoke undertone. It was tender and pretty good, and comparatively quick too. So chalk one up to Mr. Tanis but you can definitely do it my way and not wait for that pot of water to boil.
What to do with browned fennel slices? One thing would be to add cubes of microwaved butternut squash to the pan, add garlic and chile flakes and thyme, oregano or sage–maybe a sprinkling of fennel seed too–and let the whole thing brown pretty well.
Or take it another direction. Last night I cut a red onion and a red bell pepper into thin wedges, cut a fennel bulb in thin vertical slices, and microwaved all the vegetables covered for two or three minutes until they were just wilted, then heated a spoonful or so of olive oil in a nonstick frying pan and browned the vegetables with a grated clove of garlic. It was good both hot and (by the time my family drifted in for dinner) room temperature, like the little cooked salads Esther’s family set out at that fateful lunch or like the roasted red bell peppers and cipolline onions on a Sicilian antipasto table, only less agrodolce (sweet-and-sour).
Come to think of it, you could add a small splash of vinegar and a spoonful of sugar to the frying pan for the red pepper/onion/fennel salad as it’s browning. Not enough sugar and vinegar to make it sticky-sweet or aggressively vinegary, just enough to push it into agrodolce territory and give it a little tang and caramelization. A couple of slivered Kalamata or Alfonso olives were surprisingly good mixed in with the plain cooked fennel salad, and would probably contrast even better with an agrodolce version.
The other thing I’ve seen in books and food blogs but haven’t yet tried is to toss the just-browned fennel slices (plain, no other veg) with grated parmesan, dry gouda or sharp white cheddar and broil or pan-fry them on high heat to get a browned crisp coating. The salty cheese might be doing what the olives do–outcompete the salt/celery flavor of the fennel and play up the sweeter anise flavor. One recipe I’ve seen online adds the cheese-crisped fennel slices to a pot of garlicky spinach and white beans cooked with a little white wine–I think I have to try that one. Maybe if you floated the cheese-coated fennel slices on top of a soupier version of the garlic-spinach and white beans, it would be like a light minestrone crossed with French onion soup.
The crusted fennel-parmesan slices would make a nice garnish to puréed pumpkin (or butternut squash) soup too–make a sage-onion-garlic-thyme version of the soup rather than a ginger-apple-squash version, which is probably too sweet and might overpower the fennel.
A Provençal chicken dish in one of my cookbooks (Antoine Bouterin’s Cooking Provence, 1994) gives the opposite order of instructions for browning fennel if you want to caramelize it–fry first, then soften. Bouterin says to start pan-browning the fennel in a couple of spoonfuls of oil over high heat with a larger amount of sugar–a tablespoon for two medium fennel bulbs–for a few minutes until just golden, then add the juice of a lemon, lower the heat and cook it down 10 more minutes or so, until the fennel softens fully and is caramelized. The lemon juice, I know from experience, starts other ingredients–onions, artichoke hearts, carrots, fish fillets–browning quickly whenever I add it to a hot pan, so that’s probably what it’s doing here too. Bouterin’s dish is the caramelized fennel slices as a bed for pan-browned chicken breasts, very simply flavored with salt, pepper and a bit more lemon juice and a few fennel fronds. It’s probably pretty good, but I would still probably require some garlic with that chicken, just on principle (the one I was born with that says, “If there’s no garlic, is it really food?”).
But some do like their fennel with a stronger touch of sweet, at least outside the context of savory dishes. I’ve seen mentions, though no actual recipes, for candied fennel–presumably it’s like candying orange peel or slices of ginger, typically a longish process of boiling the slices in sugar syrup at least once and maybe several times over a couple of days and letting the syrup absorb in between, then airdrying the slices on a rack. What you do with candied fennel once it’s done, I”m not sure. But I could see candied slices of fennel bulb as a striking garnish for a fruit compôte or tart, or else on their own as a mignardise, maybe served with tea rather than coffee, to end a holiday meal. I might have to get some more fennel if the price is still good and try it–Thanksgiving is on its way.