I enjoyed strolling along Main Street’s Farmers Market last Tuesday at 5 p.m. The lengthening daylight allowed me appreciate the true colors of the purple and green cauliflower on display on the table in front of the Underwood Family Farms stand. Colored variants of the more common white variety, these cultivars taste similar to the more familiar variety, but add stunning color to an antipasto tray or vegetable side dishes.
The rest of the Underwood tables were piled high with color. Dark green, light green, deep red, purple, brilliant orange and muted pumpkin: a cornucopia of lettuces, deep green leafy vegetables, carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, winter squash. Nestled among all those brilliant colors were rounded white fennel bulbs. If you’re not familiar with fennel, think celery – with a twist. Tightly interlaced stalks forming a rounded white bulb at the root end, then rapidly thinning into hollow stalks topped with delicate feathery fronds.
Fennel’s come a long way since the first edition of The Joy of Cooking, the popular culinary go-to-guide which first graced American kitchens in 1931. Authors Irma Rombauer and Marion Becker paid scant attention to fennel, then only available in small family Italian markets. It could be eaten raw, or substituted for celery in a celery and rice stuffing, the short paragraph noted.
Luckily for today’s cooks, fennel has become readily available in the United States. From appetizers to salad, braising to roasting, sauteing to stir-frying, this delicate, anise-flavored vegetable can be enjoyed raw and cooked, just like Rombauer and Becker stated. It’s at its peak during fall and winter months. Nothing beats the subtle, anise/licorice-tinged taste of fennel Fennel will keep, refrigerated and loosely covered for up to a week, but it is best when used shortly after purchase. Look for tight, heavy bulbs and avoid bulbs which are shriveled or browning.
I enjoyed my fennel in a light, delicate salad. Trimming the ends and the stalks, I thinly sliced the fennel bulbs on the diagonal. I squeezed half a Meyer lemon over them, drizzled some extra virgin olive oil and added a small pinch of salt and two twists of the pepper shaker. Adding orange or grapefruit segments and substituting a mature balsamic vinegar for the lemon juice makes a refreshing variation. If you’re in the mood for something warmer, try the following recipe for fennel with orange slices. Fennel fans can make a light meal out of pureed lentil and fennel soup or Italian buffalo mozzarella, fennel and celery salad. Recipes for both dishes are below.
Fennel with Orange Slices (Warm side dish)
3 fennel bulbs, rinsed, stems and feathery tops reserved
1 navel orange
1 yellow onion, sliced
1 quart water
1 bay leaf
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Wash the orange and then zest it. Trim 1/8th of an inch off the root end of the fennel. Cut off the fennel stems just as they begin to branch out from the bulb. Cut off the feathery tops and reserve. Quarter the fennel bulbs and set aside. In a skillet, combine orange zest, fennel stems, sliced onion, bay leaf, a pinch of salt and a pinch of freshly ground pepper. Add one quart of water. Bring liquid to boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes. Place the fennel quarters cut side down in the skillet. Cook them until tender, around 15 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fennel quarters to a serving dish and keep warm. Strain the cooking liquid into a sauce pan. Discard the solids in the strainer. Boil the liquid over high heat under it is reduced to one cup, around 10 minutes. Meanwhile, remove the orange’s bitter white pith with a sharp, small knife. Slice the orange into _ inch thick rounds. Cut rounds in half. Drain off any liquid that may have accumulated in the serving dish. Pour the reduced sauce over the fennel. Arrange the orange slices on top of the fennel quarters and garnish with small pieces of the reserved fennel tops. Serve warm. (Adopted from Time-Life Books’ Fresh Ways with Vegetables.)
Lentil, Fennel, and Watercress Soup
(serves 6 to 8)
3 T. olive oil
1 c. coarsely chopped fennel, bulb portion only
1/2 c. coarsely chopped onions
1/2 c. coarsely chopped celery
1/2 c. finely chopped carrot
1/4-1/3 c. finely chopped red bell pepper
1 bunch watercress, washed, large stems removed
1 garlic clove, minced
1 1/2 c. brown lentils, picked over, soaked for a few hours, drained
6 c. chicken stock or broth (or substitute vegetable stock for a vegan version of this dish)
1/8 t. dried thyme
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper
1/8 t. chili powder
watercress sprigs to garnish
If you are able to, soak the lentils for a few hours before starting to make this soup. The finished soup will be creamier if the lentils are softened first. If you can’t soak them beforehand, start soaking them before preparing the chopped vegetables.
In a deep pot, add olive oil, fennel, onions, celery, carrot and red pepper. Saute over medium heat until it starts to brown and turn soft, a few minutes. Add the watercress and cook until the watercress starts to wilt. Add the garlic, lentils, and four cups of stock. Bring to a simmer. Add the spices. Cook over low heat for about 20-25 minutes, until the lentils are very tender and beginning to loose their shape. Add stock if needed while the soup is cooking. Using an immersion blender, puree the soup. If using a blender or food processor, puree in small batches and return to pot. Add the remaining stock and heat thoroughly. If the soup is too thick for your taste, you can thin it with additional stock. Taste and adjust seasoning. Garnish with watercress sprigs before serving. (Adopted from Lee Bailey’s Soup Meals.)
Buffalo Mozzarella, Fennel and Celery Salad
(serves 4 as side salad or 1-2 as main dish salad)
1 large or two small-medium fennel bulbs, trimmed and chopped into bite-sized pieces
(reserve the feathery tops for garnish)
4 large or 6 medium celery stalks, chopped into bite-sized pieces
8 ounces of buffalo mozzarella (whole milk mozzarella can be substituted), chopped into bit-sized pieces
romaine lettuce leaves
juice of one lemon
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground pepper
Arrange romaine lettuce leaves on the bottom and sides of a salad bowl or plate(s). Place the chopped fennel, celery and mozzarella in a bowl and toss with the lemon juice, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Remove to serving bowl or plate(s), garnish with a few feathery fennel leaves, and serve immediately. (Adopted from Suzanne Somers’ Get Skinny on Fabulous Food.)
Katie Malich bought her first (and only) mandolin to make perfect thinly sliced fennel.
The Tuesday Culver City Farmers Market is held from 2 to 7 pm on Main Street between Venice and Culver Blvds. The Culver South Farmers Market is held on Saturdays from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the corner of Slauson and Hannum in the northeast corner of the Westfield Culver parking lot.