Fresh fennel was new to me last year. The seed however, have been something I have enjoyed for years. This is vegetable is the sort of thing you look at and wonder how to eat it. I understand. I wondered the exact same thing. Armed with the right cookbooks and recipes, I felt confident and hacked the thing up and away I went. I must confess I can't believe I waited so long to try fennel. It's like licorice celery. Really, an in the best way. Raw, it is crisp, delicious to crunch on, excellent in salads and like a member of the onion family in the way it caramelizes and sautes so perfectly. Not to mention it is also perfection with roasted or grilled with some olive oil. The feathery fronds are great as a garnish on top of a dish and in some places served inside an omelet. The seeds are common in middle eastern and Indian dishes. You'll probably recognize the flavor from a good Italian sausage- they are used there, too.
Fennel also works as a digestive aid, helping breakdown some of the gases (and bloating) that a natural byproduct of highly fibrous foods such as beans and whole grains. It is can be juiced and given to colicky babies to solve the same problems. In fact, I learned that mixed with some sugar and baking soda it is "gripe water," something that is often given to infants to soothe gas.
Here is one of the ways I like it best. This is a simple, yet stellar pasta that really shows off the fennel and is a great way to try it for the first time. I served this to guests who had never had fennel before, and they really liked it. Give it a go. And if you liked the fennel, I'll have more recipes soon. I made another one I loved last night that I'll put together later. Oh, yum.
Pasta with Golden Fennel
Recipe serves 2-3.
1 large fennel bulb, including the greens
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
grated zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 pound fettuccine
Parmigiano-Reggiano or Dry Monterey Jack cheese
Remove any tough or damaged outer layers of the fennel, then quarter the bulb, set aside the greens, and slice thinly. Heat a large pot of water for the pasta.
Melt half the butter with the olive oil in a wide skillet. Add the fennel and saute over high heat, stirring occasionally, until browned in places (7-10 minutes). Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Toss with the lemon juice, then add 1/2 a cup of water. Reduce the heat and cook, covered, until the liquid has evaporated. Add another 1/4 water and continue cooking in this fashion until the fennel is very soft and deep gold in color, about 25 minutes in all. Season with pepper. Chop the fennel greens with the garlic and lemon zest and set aside.
Add salt and the pasta to the boiling water and cook until the pasta is al dente. Remove the pasta from the water and add it to the fennel. Stir in the fennel greens, garlic, and zest. Taste for salt and pepper and season accordingly. Serve with the cheese, finely grated over the top.