Maybe sticks and stones and pea straw is the perfect mix to grow fennel on Waiheke, at least in my garden this year. The bulbs are huge, and if I could resist pulling them out to eat, they would have babies, slim fennel-ettes would start forming that I could pluck out leaving the plant to continue growing and forming more of the same. But I can’t, of course, ‘cause I’m greedy, and I’ve been watching the bulbs get bigger by the day thinking of how I would eat them.
Here are some of my favourite ways:
Pan-fried Fish with Apple & Fennel Salad http://sharedkitchen.co.nz/recipe/pan-fried-fish-with-apple-fennel-salad/
Bruschetta with Roasted Fennel & Preserved lemon http://sharedkitchen.co.nz/recipe/bruschetta-with-roasted-fennel-preserved-lemon/
Fennel with Sicilian Green Olives http://sharedkitchen.co.nz/recipe/fennel-with-sicilian-green-olives/
Smoked Salmon & Fennel Salad http://sharedkitchen.co.nz/recipe/smoked-salmon-fennel-salad/
Fennel is good pan-fried, roasted (as in the bruschetta recipe above), grilled or barbecued. Egg and crumb wedges of fennel and fry in hot olive oil until golden and serve with a caper salsa. Or add to gratins, soups or casseroles. Add it to ratatouille, or stew it with red onions, garlic and tomatoes.
If it is cooked down until it’s tender enough to squash with a fork, it makes a fabulous addition to a potato mash, and even though it is not how we normally eat vegetables these days – cooked to a pulp – it’s pretty delicious eaten on its own just like that! It’s a good way to use up mature bulbs, too – save young crisp ones for salad. Trim 600g (1 lb 3oz) fennel bulbs, wash well and shake off excess water. Slice thinly and transfer to a medium frying pan (skillet). Add 50ml (1½ fl oz) dry white wine, 1 tablespoon of butter and a sprinkling of salt. Cover with a lid and bring to a gentle bubble. Lower heat and cook for about 10 minutes, until wine has nearly evaporated. Add ¾ cup of water and continue cooking for about 20 minutes, until fennel is very tender and can be squashed to a purée with a fork; do not let the pan get dry – add a little more water if necessary. Cool fennel for a few minutes, pour off any liquid, then transfer to a food processor bowl and process to a purée. Whip puréed fennel into a bowl of steaming potato mash and serve with a roast of pork, or pork dishes, generally, or with pan-fried fish, or veal snitzel and coleslaw.
Fennel is native to the Mediterranean and has four edible parts: the leaves (and stems), used as a herb, the seeds, harvested from the flowers, and the bulb. Fennel pollen is also collected and used as a condiment (it has an intense anise flavour). To collect fennel pollen, put a plastic bag around the flower head, and shake the flower to release pollen. It takes an age, and you will collect just a little from each flower. Maybe that is why it sells for an exorbitant price! Store it in an airtight jar and sprinkle lightly over cooked dishes.
Fennel seeds are a component of the Indian spice rack, used in curries and sweet dishes, and as an after-dinner breath-freshener and digestive. Loved for their aniseedy perfume and taste, fennel seeds add a layer of sweet spicy flavour and a zesty freshness. The seeds are often toasted in a dry frying pan before using and this mutes the anise taste and imparts a pleasant hint of bitterness.
There’s a lot of wild fennel growing in New Zealand, but it’s not advisable to use it for culinary purposes because traffic or animals may have contaminated it, or it may have been sprayed. Buy the plants and let them run to seed. Harvest the seeds just before they’re ripe, while they’re still supple and green. Air-dry them, then store airtight – they’re incredibly fragrant and if you’re not careful, everything in the pantry will smell of fennel!
Use the stems with feathery leaves attached on the barbecue to flavour fish. Throw into the ashes when the fish is just about ready to come off the barbecue. The leaves will easily catch alight and singe the fish imparting a hint of fennel (this is best if the fennel is a little dry). Use small quantities of finely chopped fennel leaves to flavour fish dishes, or in simple egg dishes, or in a potato salad. The pale green leaves are sweeter than the more mature deeper green ones.
Florence fennel is the variety that forms a bulb. With a name like that it’s hardly surprising that it’s particularly popular in Italy where it is called finnochio.
Fennel bulb is not cheap. If you’ve got a garden, try growing your own. Sew the seeds directly in the soil from mid-summer to early autumn, or plant seedlings at the end of summer. Fennel bulb is easy to grow and doesn’t attract many garden pests. Don’t let it get dry – it likes a regular watering – and it can handle a bit of frost.
If you are buying fennel bulbs, look for smooth white skinned bulbs without brown spots. The whole bulb is edible after trimming, but the outer pieces of mature fennel may be stringy and a bit tough (it’s best to remove these). Freshly-picked or purchased fennel will keep about a week in the fridge.
The most delicious way to eat fennel bulb is freshly sliced dunked into new seasons’ extra virgin olive oil. Italians serve this as an antipasto, or at the end of a meal as a digestive. Try it with freshly ground black pepper and wedges of parmesan cheese. Fennel is also good as a ‘dunker’ for tapenade (olive dip), pesto or mayonnaise. Sliced fennel bulb makes a fabulous salad on its own, dressed with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper – try it with fish and pork dishes. But it can also be added to green-leaf salads to add crunch and extra flavour, and in mixed salads with cherry tomatoes, olives, basil, cucumber, red onion and so on. Fennel works well with oranges, too. Make a salad with sliced fennel, halved slices of peeled juicy orange, sea salt, black pepper and a good drizzle of a fruity-tasting extra virgin olive oil.
The seeds are used in sweet and savoury dishes. Give cabbage a lift with a handful of fennel seeds. Soften crushed garlic in butter with fennel seeds, add chopped cabbage and cook several minutes, turning with a wooden spoon, until the cabbage has wilted. Season with salt and pepper and serve steaming hot. Great with roast pork – it really cuts the richness.
Use fennel seeds in baking, or in bread sticks or focaccia. For a seriously good fish, rub a whole fish with oil and lemon juice, season with salt and transfer to a large piece of tin foil. Scatter with fennel seeds and chopped black olives and wrap the fish in foil. Cook until the eyes have just turned white and the fish has just lost opaqueness (it will continue to cook as it stands). Delicious. Fennel seed is well known as an appetite-inducer, and as a digestive aid. It is used in infant preparations for colic and can help adults suffering from flatulence. Fennel seeds are often used with pork, which takes the longest of meats to digest, to aid digestion. Try adding the seeds to a stuffing for pork roasts using a loin or fillet of pork, or add to marinades for pork cutlets or chops.