Fabulous Fennel

Its versatility has food folks singing its praises

March 14, 2001|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

Fennel sounds funny, looks funny and tastes a bit like an old-fashioned candy, but its unmistakable, somewhat licorice-like flavor and crisp texture are seriously pleasing in lots of dishes.

It looks, as writer Tamar Haspel comments, "like celery that swallowed a baseball." But it's all edible, from the bulb (as a vegetable, often sauteed, steamed or baked) to the leaves (as an herb, for flavoring soups and broth) to the seeds (as a spice, lending a piquant note to salads, dressings and sausage, among other things). The stems can be used to flavor stews, soups and braises.

"Fennel's great," says Damon Hersh, executive chef at the new and noted Louisiana restaurant in Fells Point. "It has a very distinctive flavor that is so good in so many things. It pops up here as often as I can get away with it."

One of his favorite ways to serve fennel is braised, on top of a bouillabaisse (fish stew) with a broth made with saffron and Pernod. He admits not liking fennel until he got to L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, where "the doors opened up. I thought, `Wow, this is what you can do with this stuff.' "

"This stuff" has a long and distinguished history, for both culinary and medicinal uses. It grows wild in the Mediterranean region, and has been cultivated there since Roman times. Its peak season is early fall through early spring. Fennel is said to be good for soothing stomach disorders, including heartburn, water retention and colic in babies. Because the various parts are all usable, fennel is extraordinarily versatile. Everybody is bound to like some form of fennel.

Hersh says fennel is an easy sell for him, because his clientele "are quite knowledgeable about food." As for the uninitiated, if they can be persuaded to sample one of his dishes, "90 percent of the people trying it for the first time like it," he says.

Cookbook author and food writer Elizabeth Schneider, in "Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide" (Morrow, 1986, $28), says, "Fennel's taste, which is likened to licorice or anise, is lighter, less persistent than either; and it becomes more delicate and elusive when cooked."

As for how to serve it, Schneider writes, "I can't think of how not to use fennel. It has body and texture like tender celery, for which many of the same cooking techniques apply, but it also functions as a seasoning herb."

Preparation is simple: Cut off and reserve the stems and fronds, and cut out the tough core at the base. For neat raw strips, Schneider advises, peel off the celerylike stalks and slice them. (If the outer stalks are tough or stringy, discard them.) For braising or grilling, halve or quarter the bulbs.

Fresh fennel will keep in the fridge stored in plastic for up to four days. To restore crispness, soak in ice water for an hour, or place in a bowl of cold water in the fridge.

Two varieties

Mark Bittman, food writer and cookbook author, points out that fennel comes in two varieties: bulb fennel, or Florence fennel, and wild fennel, also known as herb or bronze fennel. Bulb fennel has the familiar bulbous bottom and light feather tops. Wild fennel is mostly feathers and no bulb at all.

You use the feathery parts of wild fennel to season dishes. "The taste is really great," Bittman says.

You can also use the tops of bulb fennel for seasoning. Bittman likes to braise fennel with slices of orange, and he says it's terrific simply quartered and grilled. A favorite pasta dish combines wild fennel and sardines.

However, his favorite way to use fennel is right out of the grocery bag. "I really do like it raw, so when I buy it, I just eat it. It's such a great snack."

Another fan of fennel is Steven Roberts, executive chef for Sutton Place Gourmet, based in Bethesda.

"Fennel is one of my favorite vegetables in the world," he says. "It's a wonderfully textured, neutral vegetable. It really reminds me of the Mediterranean."

Besides having a fresh, zesty flavor, fennel is good for you, Roberts says, with vitamin A, potassium and calcium. And it's low in calories - about 30 in a cup.

"Fennel is great as a base component for tapenade [an olive spread]. I serve it with lavash, a Persian style flatbread. It's also great as a stuffing, for fish or poultry."

One of his favorite fennel dishes is steamed fennel, sliced and dressed with pistachio or peanut oil, served on the perimeter of a platter of grilled baby vegetables tossed with sun-dried tomato pesto, fresh marjoram or oregano, and a pinch of garlic. "It's very pretty," he says. "You get a lot of `Wows.' "

Fennel Cilantro Pancakes

Serves 6

10 ounces fennel, julienne

6 ounces carrots, peeled and julienne

4 ounces leeks, split, washed and julienne

3 ounces red onion, peeled and julienne

2 ounces radicchio, julienne

3 ounces olive oil, plus more to saute pancakes

2 whole eggs

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup sour cream

3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

1/2 cup corn flour

sea salt and black pepper to taste

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