Seasonal Eats: Root-to-Flower Fun with Fennel

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Fennel Bulbs (Photo by Heather Parlato)

If you're looking for the path back from your comfort-food-filled holiday weekend to farm-fresh fare, we';re taking a look at fennel today. Fennel is a plant with distinctively different parts that can all be used uniquely, for minimal fallout to the compost bin. Before we get into the recipes, let's talk about the 5 usable parts of fennel.

We mostly buy fennel for the bulb, but before you cut the stalks and leaves off, consider this: the entire plant is edible. The feathery leaves are a nice topper to soups and salads and a mildly fragrant & decorative addition to pickles and marinades. I cut the leaves from the stalks and set aside in a container for use through the week. The stalks are a bit too fibrous to be enjoyed raw as you might eat celery, but if you slice them up and simmer in a soup, they can add fennel's anise flavor and a nice crunch. I most commonly add sliced stalks to my vegetable stocks, which I'll detail in the preservation project below. Finally, the fruits [they're typically misnamed seeds, Wikipedia tells me] and flowers add a great seasoning to foods and can be extracted into liqueurs if you're interested in foraging the wild fennel all over Los Angeles. I'll go into those last two in springtime when they're available.

So why eat fennel? It's another super-healthy, highly-usable food. With only a glycemic load of 2, and an excellent source of vitamin C and dietary fiber, you can add it to nearly anything, sans regret. For those keeping score, fennel can also give you Niacin, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Copper, Folate, Potassium and Manganese. I will say this, however, it is listed as a phytoestrogen, which means that it can have estrogenic effects if over-consumed [a similar warning as with soy]. If you're not an adult female, moderation is a good idea.

My favorite kitchen tool to use with fennel is a mandoline. While a knife is fine for most uses, I find a mandoline can add so many more options by allowing you to achieve a quick and easy paper-thin slice. I have never invested in a fancy adjustable mandoline, I really like my $20 kyocera [not an ad, I'm just saying don't let a price tag stop you, start with the basics]. A mandoline can be used on many of the thicker winter root veggies, transforming them into delicate salads and slaws, like this fennel, carrot & apple version.

First, the most simple and fresh use is to slice it up and dress it. I prefer a mandolined fennel bulb with my essential 4: olive oil, white wine vinegar, salt & pepper. Eat it on its own, or use the mix to top a salad. Fennel pairs very well with citrus, if you want to throw some winter tangerines, oranges or grapefruit into the mix. Fish dishes are often good friends to fennel as well, consider these delicious ideas: Roasted halibut with grapefruit fennel salsa, and if you like them, grilled fresh sardines with fennel and preserved lemon.

Fennel cooks up really well a few different ways. Start with a simple roast fennel, pan fry it with spicy peppers, or brown it in butter on its own as a side dish. If you're grilling, try this grilled fennel and orange salad. Work some into a couscous with pine nuts, or season your next batch of mussels with fennel and orange.

If you're looking for ways to fennel-up your winter dishes, this roasted carrot fennel soup is a great use of winter seasonals. This artichoke and fennel ravioli looks amazing [be a rebel, make your own pasta! Let the fennel reflect the flavors of spicy sausage with clams, or use this decidedly-Sicilian take on stuffing when roasting your next bird: fennel, pine nut, and roasted lemon stuffing.

Preservation Project: I like making soups all year long, and it really makes me proud to say I've made everything from scratch. When you're at the market, make sure to pick up extra onions, garlic, carrots and reserve the tops of your celery and fennel stalks so you can cook them into delicious vegetable stock for immediate use or to freeze for later. Chop 1 large onion, 5 cloves garlic, 2-3 carrots, all your celery tops and up to 2 cups of fennel stalks & leaves for a 2-quart pot. Sauté your onion and garlic in olive oil 5 minutes [add vinegar if you like], then add the rest of your veggies, toss and cover to sweat them another 5 minutes. Fill the pot with water and simmer on low for an hour. When finished, strain out the stock, and you've made your own!

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Shaved Fennel Salad (Photo by Heather Parlato)

Shaved Fennel & Beet Salad with Black Olives [serves 2]

Ingredients:
1 small or ½ large fennel bulb, thin sliced or mandolined
1 beet, thin sliced or mandolined
3 tangerines
2 large handfuls arugala or mixed winter green salad
20 oil-cured black olives or kalamata olives
6 anchovies
shaved parmesan
3 Tbs white wine vinegar & extra for dressing
olive oil, salt & pepper to taste

Slice or mandoline your fennel into a bowl. Juice 1 tangerine over the top and add 2 Tbs vinegar, toss and set aside. Slice or mandoline your beet [I used an orange beet, but any type is fine] into a separate bowl, dress with 1 Tb vinegar, salt and pepper, and set aside. Peel the 2 remaining tangerines and slice crosswise into 4 rings.

If you're with me on this Sicilian thing, and you're using oil-cured black olives and anchovies, congratulations! Oil cured black olives always come with the pits in, so cut around the center of the olive, peel the flesh back on each side, discard the pit, and reserve in a dish.

To assemble the salad, set your 2 large handfuls of greens in each serving bowl. Place half the marinating shaved fennel over each bowl of greens and pour any juices from the bowl over the top. Arrange the tangerines and marinated beet slices as you wish on the fennel [pour the beet marinade over the top too]. Place the black olives around the edge of the center arrangement. Shave your preferred amount of parmesan over the top, and place 3 anchovies in the center.

Dress with olive oil, white wine vinegar, salt & pepper and enjoy!