If you visit an Italian market any time between late fall and early spring you're likely to see them in carefully stacked pyramids, fronds trimmed and the blemished outer layer removed, proudly turgid and radiating flavor: Bulb fennel. Despite its 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 pinzimonio (raw vegetables), especially when the new oil is in, and cooked it is a wonderful foil for all sorts of wintry dishes, supporting but never distracting from what it's being served with. It also works well on its own, for example in a flan.
Some background: In Italy the word finocchio applies to a number of plants belonging to the Ombrellifera 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 is the part used, which is rich in anise oil; in the wild varieties 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 tennis ball to that of a soft ball (5-10 cm in diameter), and can be either spherical or taper 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 deflated 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 than 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. In terms of a dressing, they work best with extravirgin olive oil, salt, and pepper -- no vinegar. If your fennel bulbs still have leafy fronds attached, they too are a nice addition to the salad.
If you instead plan to cook your fennel, as a rule you will want to wash the bulbs, quarter them, and then proceed with the recipe.
Never had fennel before and want to do something quick with it? Elisabetta's grandmother quarters 3-4 bulbs of fennel, cubes an equivalent volume of potatoes, and boils them with a teaspoon or two of fennel seeds in a little lightly salted water until fork tender. She then drains them, stirs in a quarter of a pound of shredded fontina cheese and the leafy fronds from the fennel bulbs (washed, patted dry and minced), covers the pot to give the cheese time to melt, and serves them as a side dish. Home cooking, and quite nice with meatballs, lesso rifatto (recooked boiled meat, a delicacy in its own right), or a light stew.
Fabia instead writes"I make it braised with leeks. Slice fennel, slice leeks (in circles), sauté them in olive oil for a few minutes, and add some chicken broth, salt and pepper. Sauté on medium high heat until most of the liquid is gone. Try not to over cook. Most of the time I don't cook from recipes so I don't have the exact measurements."
SOME OF OTHER IDEAS:
A traditional Christmas Eve first course from Puglia, which is delightful all winter.
Fennel sauteed, then topped with bechamel sauce and broiled. Delightful, with some tasty variations.
Finocchi del Sud
Anchovies and olives contrast pleasently with the sweetness of fennel.
Finocchi in Salsa
A zesty egg sauce is the perfect foil for the sweetness of fennel. And will work very well with other vegetables too.
Fennel Salad, or Fenoci in Salata
To call this classic winter dish of the Vicentino a salad is actually something of a misnomer, because the fennel is cooked rather than served raw. It is, however, very good!
Pisci di Terra
A Sicilian recipe for golden fried fennel wedges, whose shape brings fish (pisci) to mind.
Sformato di Finocchi
An extremely delicate timbale made with bulb fennel, from Pellegrino Artusi.
Simple baked braised fennel, which may not be traditional, but sure is tasty.
Finocchi Alla Giudea
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.
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RED RADICCHIO | MUSHROOMS | ARTICHOKES | FARRO
BULB FENNEL | SALADS & GREENS | ZUCCHINI & SQUASH
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POTATOES & ROOT VEGETABLES | MISCELLANEOUS
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