If you visit an Italian market anytime between late fall and early spring, you're likely to see fennel in carefully stacked pyramids, fronds trimmed and the blemished outer layer removed. Despite its vague resemblance to an onion, fennel is one of the most delicately flavored winter vegetables, and versatile too -- raw it adds delicate anise-laced overtones to a salad or is an invaluable addition to a (raw vegetable antipasto), especially when served with new olive oil, and cooked it is a wonderful foil for all sorts of wintry dishes, supporting but never distracting from what it's being served with.
Fennel also has a reputation for making mediocre wine taste much better, when eaten at the same time as the wine is tasted. My Italian uncle told me that in the past, sneaky wine merchants trying to unload inferior wines would serve them for tastings together with some raw finocchio, leading to the Italian expression "Non ti fare infinocchiare." (Meaning: Don't let yourself get bamboozled.)
Some background: In Italy the word finocchio applies to a number of plants belonging to the Umbelliferae family, and more specifically to Foeniculum vulgare. According to De Agostini's La Mia Cucina, the plant grows in the wild as a perennial or biannual but is annual if grown as a crop. In fennel grown as a crop, the bulb, rich in anise oil, is the part used; in wild varieties, the flowers and fronds, which contain a more powerful oil and are necessary for certain dishes, are used instead.
In your market, you will likely find the bulbs.
They range from the size of a golf ball to that of a softball (5-10 cm in diameter), and can be either spherical or tapered towards the fronds; though there isn't much of a difference in flavor between the two, I find that the spherical ones yield more. In any case, when you select fennel, pick bulbs that are firm and blemish-free; if they have brownish streaks or the outer layer looks somewhat shriveled, they are likely old or have suffered in transport.
If you are going to use them in a salad, wash them well, quarter them, and rinse them again, checking to make sure that no dirt has worked its way in between the sections. Then slice them finely, or julienne them. They go especially well in mixed salads, with other vegetables including celery or tomatoes, cheeses, or finely chopped walnuts. (This Fennel, Grapefruit and Arugula Salad is a wonderful example.) In terms of a dressing, they work best with extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper -- no vinegar. If your fennel bulbs still have leafy fronds attached, they are a nice addition to the salad or for use as a garnish.
If you instead plan to cook your fennel, wash the bulbs, quarter them, and then proceed with the recipe.
SIMPLE SUGGESTIONS FOR USING FENNEL:
- Braised Fennel with Potatoes and Fontina:
Quarter 3-4 fennel bulbs, cube an equivalent volume of potatoes, and boil them with 1-2 teaspoons of fennel seeds in a little lightly salted water until fork tender. Then drain the vegetables, stir in 1/4 pound of shredded Fontina cheese and the leafy fronds from the fennel bulbs (washed, patted dry and minced). Cover the pot until the cheese has melted, then serve as a side dish.
- Braised Fennel with Leeks:
Slice the fennel into thin strips, slice the white part of the leeks into thin circles, and saute both in olive oil for a few minutes. Add a small amount of chicken broth, salt and pepper to taste, and saute over medium-high heat until most of the liquid has evaporated.
- Fennel, Grapefruit and Arugula Salad
A wonderfully refreshing salad, with many possible variations.
- Sicilian Fava Bean and Wild Fennel Soup
A very traditional Sicilian pureed soup often served for the Feast Day of San Giuseppe (March 19).
A zesty egg sauce is the perfect foil for the fennel's mild sweetness.
This recipe for bulb fennel is from the Marche, and is probably called alla giudea -- Jewish -- because it was introduced by a Jewish family that settled in the region. It's quite easy to prepare, and quite tasty too.