My sister-in-law asked me at Thanksgiving: How do you cook fennel? I'm sure many of us have wondered the same thing. Heck, there was a time in my life when my question would have been, Why would I eat fennel??? But these days, I find it one of the best vegetables for winter eating. Even my 15 year old loves it. When fresh, fennel is strongly anise-flavored, crisp and bitter and clean. Roasting gives it an entirely different flavor - deep, rich, sweet. It's really worth it to grow (or buy) this veg for your winter cooking.
A couple of years ago, a friend gave me a packet of fennel seeds. I had read somewhere that fennel doesn't get along with other vegetables, that it's not a good companion plant. I didn't research that any further, and because I was worried about it being even near my vegetable beds, threw the seeds into a flower mix and scattered them in one of the pollinator gardens. Not long after, I started seeing fennel in many other edible gardens with my own eyes, and it was getting along with everything just fine. So I planted two seedlings in my herb bed. Well, those have done very well; but the seeds that I scattered two years ago found purchase right near the fence line, and for some reason liked the lean soil there. That little patch has grown very large and full, so full that this past summer I had to tied it up to the fence so that it wouldn't grow completely over the sidewalk. Around that same time, I noticed the instars of Anise Swallowtail Butterflies all over it. This made growing fennel worth it, even if we never used it!
Unfortunately, those little caterpillars didn't make it very long before a bird snapped them up, but it was a very exciting find nonetheless. In late summer, the plants seemed to die down and get brown; I clipped them almost to the ground. Lo and behold, over the autumn they grew again, even fuller and more lush, and started producing bulbs. (I've cut back the two seedlings in the herb bed with hopes of this same kind of growth.) We have some favorite fennel recipes, and the bulbs were getting to a nice size, so I went out the other day and cut two of them off.
I washed these to a fare-thee-well after taking this photo, and separated the fronds from the bulbs. We like to eat the stalks and fronds in fennel cakes, a recipe that Tom got from Angelo Garro (of pasta and charcuterie fame). Angelo posted it on his website, so I don't think he'll mind us sharing it here.
Finely chop four cups of fennel stalks and fronds. The fronds can go right into a big bowl; but the stalks will need to be parboiled in salted water for a few minutes, then added to the bowl. Add 1 cup of coarse bread crumbs (I like the crumbs made from our stale sourdough bread, natch), 2 cups freshly grated parmesan, 5 cloves of finely minced garlic, a pinch of crushed red pepper, and some sea salt. Mix together with 2 eggs (I find that 3 works better with our smaller homegrown chicken eggs). Heat up a slick of oil in a big skillet - I like a combination of coconut and olive. Drop rounded tablespoons into the hot oil, fry a few minutes on each side. The 'cakes' will be very loose when you drop them into the pan - sometimes it helps to mold them with your hands - but will come together as they fry up. Drain on paper towels and serve warm. A little dollop of creme fraiche on top would not be amiss.
Now, what to do with the bulbs? You could just slice them and roast them in a hot oven, 425 ish, for 30 minutes, with a little oil and salt. Yum. We also enjoy the bulbs in a sausage and fennel ragu, which I have adapted from The Kitchn.
In a large heavy pot, brown a pound of bulk spicy Italian sausage. (You need the spicy version, because the end product isn't spicy at all, trust me.) Add some chopped onion or a couple of chopped shallots, plus two fennel bulbs, chopped coarsely. Add 6 cloves of minced garlic. Let that go for about 15 minutes until the fennel is starting to get tender. Add salt and pepper. Add some canned tomatoes. If you have home-canned, add two quarts of crushed or whole tomatoes and one pint of tomato puree. If you're buying, get two 32 ounce cans of diced tomatoes and one 15 ounce can of tomato puree. Add to the pot. The original recipe called for adding a sprig of rosemary, but I find it conflicts. Stir it all together, adjust the salt. Let it simmer for a good hour. Depending on the water content of your tomatoes, you can do lid on or off. Then just watch it for a while - the longer it cooks the better it will be, but you'll want to make sure there's enough liquid. Serve over a thick noodle with plenty of freshly grated Parmesan.
I have so much fennel that I'm planning to make a warm fennel and parmesan dip with crostini and take it to several pot lucks (which we all have this time of year, yes?). I found that recipe here on Martha Stewart's website. I can't say how it tastes because I haven't tried it yet, but it sure looks yummy.
I also really love the smell of fennel. I am not a big candle person - I dislike all the fake scents - but I have found that ROOT (beeswax, natural oils) makes a candle called 'Village Herb Shop' which smells basically of fennel. It's lovely to have it burning on these cold days.
Hope this inspires you to try out this delicious and important-for-the-pollinators vegetable, in your garden and on your table!