Learn to Love Fennel

Raw Organic Fennel Bulbs Ready to Cook
Raw Organic Fennel Bulbs Ready to Cook

This vegetable’s unique licorice flavor can be applied many ways.

Disguised as plump celery topped with bright green feathery leaves, fennel stands out in the garden and on the plate. With its unique licorice flavor, this vegetable finds a home in every course, from appetizer to dessert. 

“I don’t just like fresh fennel, I actually love it!” says Kathi Riley Smith, whose resume includes esteemed Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Zuni Café in San Francisco. As a chef and culinary instructor, she has been cooking with fennel for decades. “How many vegetables can you prepare in as many ways as you can prepare fennel?” she says.

“It can be braised, caramelized, fried, grilled, roasted. [It can be] added to soup or stock, or combined with a myriad of bitter lettuces to make a lovely salad.” 

Fennel forms as a thick, white, above-ground, globe-like bulb with green stalks and feathery leaves. Its bulb, stalk, leaves, and seeds are all edible and contain fennel’s unique flavor, but it’s the tender bulb that’s most prized. Even fennel pollen, which is characterized as having a sweet, earthy flavor, can be used to dress up a dish.  “In order to appreciate fennel, you need to have an appreciation for a mild licorice flavor,” Riley Smith says. “The texture is similar to celery, both in its raw form, as well as cooked.” 

As an appetizer, fennel is sometimes roasted and paired with cheese for a savory dish that won’t take up too much real estate in the stomach before the main course. It may also be found thinly shaved onto a bruschetta or incorporated into a puff pastry bite. Riley Smith says fennel is a great starter to an Italian style meal. “I love this classic salad: wild arugula, lemon- and olive oil-marinated fennel and Reggiano Parmesan. There is a delicious version of this salad with almonds regularly on the menu at Masullo,” Riley Smith says of the Sacramento restaurant. “I also love fennel bulb combined with celery root in a puréed soup.” 

Dry fennel seeds and ripe  bulb
Dry fennel seeds and ripe bulb

In an entrée, fennel not only adds flavor but also texture with a satisfying crunch. Fennel gratin, where it’s layered with cream and cheese, or in a pasta dish like a roasted fennel pomodoro are just two of the many ways to incorporate the ingredient into a main dish. Paired with onion, garlic, and a hardy meat, like sausage, fennel can amplify the richness of a protein.

And perhaps most surprisingly, in a dessert, fennel can be found alongside everything from chocolate to pudding to lemon cake. When cooked in the oven, fennel can produce a nutty flavor that adds depth. The seeds may be used in a toasted fennel lemon cake, while the bulbs are the star of a fennel upside down cake. 

Every part of this flowery plant can be used in a variety of desserts, adding complexity while balancing out sweetness. Fresh fennel is available fall through spring; in summer, it tends to go to seed and turn bitter. “When selecting fennel in a grocery store or market, I look for larger fennel bulbs that are very tightly formed,” Riley Smith notes. “Try not to buy bulbs that have a loose outside layer, as they tend to be fibrous and tough to eat.”

Fried Fennel

Recipe: Fried Fennel