In this article we will discuss fennel, a vegetable that is used throughout European cooking.
In its raw form many people may not recognize the fennel or know how to cook it, or what to use it with.
But if you have explored Italian cooking before it is quite likely you have eaten a fennel before, in some form, and maybe not realized.
In description they can sound quite odd and potentially undesirable but they actually are a really unique vegetable that when you know how to use it can really up your cooking game, especially in European cuisines, most notably Italian cuisine.
Keep reading to learn more about the fennel, its flavor, as well as its culinary usage.
What Is A Fennel?
The bulb of the fennel plant is the most commonly used part of the plant, and resembles an onion.
The fronds that extrude from the bulb can be used much like a herb and carry its most pungent flavors.
Fennel seeds are also very commonly used and carry its flavor in a perhaps more subtle way.
While it is quite comparable to other vegetables such as garlic or onion, in its composition, it is botanically more similar to a carrot, being part of the same genus, Foeniculum.
When in full bloom a fennel plant can grow up to a height of 8 feet in some cases, with the stems coming from the bulb itself.
But is commonly what is underneath the ground that is used in cooking.
What Does A Fennel Taste Like?
Fennel has a notable aniseed flavor, which is mainly contained in the fronds of the bulb and in the seeds.
The bulb of the fennel is most commonly used in culinary usage and does have an aniseed flavor but it’s much more subtle in the bulb.
Aniseed is most recognized in licorice, and an aromatic and perfumed flavor and scent, and can be divisive for some pallets.
Yet, the flavor of the fennel bulb carries this flavor in a more subtle way that makes it ideal for cooking.
In many recipes where an onion is used, you can simply swap this for a fennel bulb.
Those who really enjoy this aniseed flavor should look to the fronds where this flavor is most concentrated.
Fennel seeds are also used commonly and lie somewhere between the bulb and its fronds in terms of aniseed pungency.
In fact, the most pungent manifestation of the aniseed flavor is in the fennel ‘pollen’ which is actually the small flowers that sprout from the shoots, but is also the most expensive part of the plant due to its scarcity.
In comparison to other flavors fennel can be quite similar to dill or mint., and has a menthol effect like the latter that is pleasant.
How Is Fennel Used In Cooking?
The bulb is a crisp vegetable quite similar to an onion and can be treated the same way.
It can be sauteéd and used in sauces, stewed, braised, caramelized, pickled, or even eaten raw.
The bulb can replace an onion in any recipe that requires one.
Yet, you can also use the bulb in combination with both, or either, onion and garlic.
One very common use of fennel is with sausage.
Fennel is a primary flavor component in Italian sausage and probably one of the most common ways people consume fennel.
In the Middle East it is common to use raw fennel in salads, particularly to compliment meats.
The young leaves, called fronds, are used like a herb and added fresh to sauces and salads, or simply for garnish so the aniseed flavor hits the nose as well as the palette.
Meanwhile seeds of fennel are used as a flavoring as well, they can add a sweet aniseed flavor when toasted, can be ground in a pestle and mortar for a wider flavor, or can be added to pickles, chutneys, or to garnish bread.
Historically, fennel seeds were chewed raw to freshen breath and can even aid digestion like mint.
How To Use Fennel
Here’s some recipes that demonstrate how you can use fennel easily in home cooking.
This recipe shows some common flavor accompaniments with fennel, such as lemon.
This dish is ideal to have in summer, and could even be combined with a fish course for an ideal Italian ‘primi e secondi’.
When the fennel is cooked the aniseed flavor becomes sweeter, so lemon helps add some sharpness while the kale provides leafy texture as well as an added earthy flavor to mellow everything out.
This is a dish that can develop your cooking skill while also introducing you to the flavor of fennel alongside the classic sausage.
Fennel often appears in sausage meat so it can make sense to eat it in this deconstructed way with a classic, favorite, sausage.
After frying off the fennel and sausage you create an easy sauce with chicken broth that de-glazes the font on the pan, creating something special.
A great recipe to use up any leftover fennel you may have, particularly from cultivation.
Moreover, this demonstrates how versatile fennel is, being able to be used in a dessert.
The apple and fennel work perfectly together and the fennel becomes sweeter when cooked like this.
A perfect summer dessert served with some sour cream.
As you can see fennel is a really versatile and interesting vegetable that presents many unique cooking opportunities.
Once mastered, fennel can bring a lot of nuance and complexity to simple dishes such as pasta or any sort of meat dish.
In terms of flavor, a fennel can be surmised as having the flavor of aniseed, most recognizable in licorice.
This flavor is most pungent in the fronds and seeds but in the bulb itself this aniseed flavor is cooked out and is more in the background, not overpowering dishes with any sweetness or strong aroma.
- 1 fennel bulb trimmed and shaved thinly
- 2 tablespoons fronds fennel
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- In a large bowl, combine the thinly sliced fennel bulb and chopped fennel fronds.
- Drizzle the olive oil over the fennel, then add the lemon juice and zest.
- Season with kosher salt and cracked black pepper or red pepper flakes to taste.
- Toss the ingredients together until the fennel is evenly coated in the dressing.
- Serve the fennel salad immediately, garnished with additional fennel fronds if desired.