Preparing a fine feast of fennel

Menu: Sweet and delicate, seductive and mellow, this vegetable with the light licorice taste can add irresistible flavor to a variety of dishes.

February 10, 1999|By Cathy Thomas | Cathy Thomas,Orange County Register

Fresh fennel can be a cooking conundrum.

Sometimes the supermarkets label it "anise" or "sweet anise." But it's not.

Sometimes, because of its feathery, dark green tops, folks think it's dill. But it's not.

No wonder fennel rookies are confused.

Often hiding between the leeks and the cabbage, it's the green-tinged-but-almost-white bulb with celery-like stalks sprouting in spoke-like fashion at the top. The stalks are adorned with delicate, fern-like, dark green leaves.

It may look a little wacky, but once you've eaten fennel and savored its gentle, sweet flavor, reminiscent of mild licorice, you'll never be misled by erroneous labels again.

Its subtle taste is seductive. Habit-forming.

But then there's the fennel-trimming mystery to solve. Do those frilly tops get pruned? The recipe says to cut it into thin slices, but does that include both the stalks and the bulb?

In most cases, it's the fleshy bulb at the base you're after. The spunky stems that sprout at the top of the bulb (that look like rounded stalks of celery) are stringy and can be tough. I prefer to use the stalks for flavoring broths and sauces, straining and discarding them after long, slow simmering. Reserve the fragrant greenery at the top of the stalks (this is the part that is mistaken for dill) for a garnish or a last-minute flavor enhancer.

* Fennel Trimming 101: First remove and discard any browned layers. Trim off stalks at the bulb. Trim bottom end (but not too much or the layers will come apart) and discard. To cut into strips, cut the bulb in half lengthwise. Place cut-side down; cut in half lengthwise again. (You'll see a white core in the center; generally it's fairly small and doesn't need to be removed, but if it's large, you can cut it out with a small paring knife.) Cut into crosswise slices. The strips can be left whole or diced, depending on how you plan to use it. Easy.

* Buying know-how: When selecting fennel, look for well-developed bulbs that are crisp with no sign of browning or splitting. The stalks should look healthy and the leaves should be bright green and perky, not wilted. Refrigerate it in the crisper, wrapped tightly in a plastic bag, up to five days (at which point you can trim off the stalks and leaves for longer storage). With long storage, there is some flavor loss.

* Felicitous fennel, raw or cooked: Although it's delicious served raw as an appetizer (cut into sticks and served with a dip) or in a salad, fennel is enormously versatile when cooked. Called finocchio in Italian, or fenouil in French, this aromatic vegetable is an essential ingredient in many mouthwatering Mediterranean dishes. In France, whole fish are grilled over fennel stalks (for a similar effect, oven-bake fish over sliced fennel). In Italy, diced fennel is used in pasta sauces or steamed and tossed with fresh herbs and a simple vinaigrette.

It can be braised, sauteed, baked or steamed. Cooking makes the flavors mellow, so often folks who are lukewarm about it raw can be wild about it cooked. Here are 10 fast ways to enjoy it:

* Tuna surprise: Finely chopped raw fennel gives tuna salad some crunch and pizazz; fold in some chopped fennel tops (the part that looks like fresh dill) for color. It is especially good for tuna melts.

* Beef stew with style: Long, slow cooking makes wedges of fennel tender and tame. This aromatic, vegetable-studded stew fills the kitchen with delicious fennel perfume. Recipe follows.

* Cure for the wintertime blues: A winter salad of mixed greens, baby spinach, fennel and sausage is irresistible. Cook Italian sausage, either on the grill or in a skillet (brown on all sides, then lower heat and cook slowly until completely cooked). Toss a mixture of baby lettuces, some baby spinach (the kind that is sold in cellophane bags) and oh-so-thinly sliced trimmed fennel with enough vinaigrette (two parts olive oil to one part cider vinegar, mixed with a little Dijon mustard, salt and pepper) to lightly coat the leaves. Place on dinner plates. Cut sausage into bite-size pieces and arrange on top. Garnish with shavings of Parmesan cheese.

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