Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Fennel is truly a vegetable and should not be confused with the herb, sweet anise. Even though they share a similar mild sweet licorice flavor, fennel comes from an entirely different plant. Fennel has a rounded creamy white bulb, short green stalks and feathery green leaves. Its appearance resembles an extra plump bunch of celery, and it has a unique licorice taste that becomes milder when cooked. It can also be eaten raw and is used as a bad breath neutralizer.
Fennel is very popular in Europe and until recently was found primarily in Italian and specialty markets in the United States. It is now found in mainstream supermarkets, however, it is frequently sold incorrectly as sweet anise. Fennel is grown primarily in Italy, France, Greece, and the United States. In the United States, fennel is grown almost exclusively in California
Storage & Selection
Fennel can vary significantly in size anywhere from ½ pound to 2 pounds. In my opinion size is very important, as smaller fennel bulbs are more tender and less fibrous than larger bulbs. The bulb has virtually all of the usable meat, and should be a firm, clean creamy white that doesn't show any sign of brown spots, yellowing, splitting, or withering, a sign the fennel is old. Fennel stalks should be straight and the leaves a feathery bright green. Avoid fennel if there are flowers on the stalks because this is a sign that the fennel is over mature. Store fennel in a plastic bag, in the high-humidity crisper section of the refrigerator for no more than three to four days. Fennel loses its flavor quickly so it's best to use it as soon as possible.
Most fennel bulbs are sold with the stalk still attached, so they will need to be removed before preparation. After removing the stalks, slice off the top and bottom of the fennel bulb. The outermost layer of the bulb should also be removed if the bulb is large or if its skin is bruised or split. Next, slice the trimmed bulb in half lengthwise, and cut the halves into wedges for braising, or thin crescents for salads. The halves can also be diced as you would an onion or celery stalk.
Don't throw away the stalks or leaves. Chefs use the stalks in soups and stews to add flavor and use the feathery leaves as an herb, similar to parsley. The leaves are particularly good with fish baked in parchment. You can also wet the fronds and stalks and throw them on the grill in lieu of wood chips. In addition to fish, they add excellent flavor to poultry, pork, and lamb.
Florence fennel is for all practical purposes the only variety of fennel. This squat bulb has a subtle licorice flavor that diminishes with cooking. Taller, spindly wild or herb fennel has a much more pronounced fennel flavor and produces seeds used for seasoning