This Meatless Monday, we feature fennel, with growing, storage and prep tips, as well as recipes for Roasted Beet and Fennel Salad and Braised Fennel and Potatoes from Vermont Fresh: A Fruit and Vegetable Handbook.
Fennel has feathery leaves that grow from a white, swollen stem often mistaken for a bulb. Although it was widely used in Greek and Roman times, fennel didn’t make it to the United States until the nineteenth century. Italians, however, have appreciated the anise-flavored vegetable for ages, even when the rest of the world did not. An American official abroad in Italy discovered the delights of fennel in 1824, when he mailed seeds back home to former President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson grew the seeds in his famous garden and came to regard it as one of his favorite vegetables. Some people find the strong, anise-like flavor of fennel too intense, but cooked properly and tempered with other flavors, fennel can be a true delicacy.
Despite the fact that fennel originated in warm climates, it is a fairly hardy annual that appreciates cool weather and plenty of water. Well fertilized soils (enriched with compost) will produce the largest, sweetest “bulbs.” There are two primary types of fennel: bulbing and non-bulbing. Non-bulbing fennel is used as an herb and is grown for both leaves and seed, so it is indeed useful, but don’t be disappointed if you grow that type and it doesn’t have a bulb-like base! Direct-seed fennel in mid-spring, sewing seeds again in mid-summer for another crop in the fall. If you wish transplant seedlings, start them indoors about 4 weeks before planting outdoors. If the plants start to bolt (go to seed), remove the bolting stalks. Harvest fennel when the bulbs are about 3-4 inches across.
Fennel is sensitive to drying out, so it needs to be wrapped in plastic before being stored in the refrigerator. The bulb will store longer if the stems and leaves are removed, so if possible, use the greenery first. On its own, the bulb will keep for about a week. Keep fennel as close to freezing as possible without actually freezing it, which will damage quality.
Fennel’s flavor comes from a compound called anethole, which may be an anti-inflammatory agent. In addition to being full of Vitamin C, fennel is a good source of potassium, dietary fiber, folate, iron, phosphorus, and magnesium.
The greenery on fennel is a good indication of its freshness; never choose fennel with wilted or dull tops. Bulbs should be firm, largely unblemished, and white-green in color. Smaller bulbs are milder, making them better suited for eating raw. Larger bulbs can be trimmed at the base, quartered, and then cooked in a variety of ways. Fennel is especially tasty when roasted or braised.
Meatless Monday Recipe: Roasted Beet and Fennel Salad
Dustin Smith, a volunteer cooking, tasting and testing recipes out of the Vermont Fresh Handbook gave us this recipe. It’s a customization of the fennel salad recipe in the Handbook.