Also known as Sweet Anise, Fennel lures you in with the beauty and fragrance of its feathery aromatic fronds atop pale celery-green stems. But it is the ever-thickening stems maturing to a big shot-put of a bulb-look-alike, that will turn you into a real Fennel aficionado.
A member of the Umbellifereae family, Fennel is kissing cousins to Parsley, Carrots, Dill and Coriander. Known as Finocchio in Italy, Fennel is one of the aromatic botanicals used in the distillation of the mysterious French spirit, Absinthe, the green fairy. Rich in Vitamin C, fiber, potassium and manganese and low in calories, Fennel contains phytonutrients with strong antioxidant properties. But perhaps most importantly, this delicately flavored fall and winter vegetable tastes really good raw in citrusy salads, or cooked in hearty gratins, soups and mashes or roasted vegetable extravaganzas.
Start Seedlings Indoors Now~So Easy to Grow
Romy Fennel (an open-pollinated variety good for seed saving) is a hefty chef-loved Italian heirloom with large white globe-shaped 'bulbs' weighing in at 12 to 14 ounces. Orion Fennel is a svelte F1 hybrid that we hunted down for its compact and uniform growing habit, which means you can grow more succulent 'bulbs' in smaller space gardens. Snip aromatic, lime-green feathery Fennel fronds into fresh salads or use them as an edible garnish (to signal that velvety-sweet Fennel lurks within bubbling, cheesy casseroles).
Start Fennel indoors six weeks before your last spring frost date. You can refer to our Seed Starting Schedules and the NOAA's Frost-Free Date Schedule. Sow seed sparingly in individual peat pots since it doesn’t like its roots disturbed, who does. Provide good sunlight, good air ventilation and warmth. Thin seedlings to the strongest one per pot and let them grow into good-sized plants~5” to 6” tall or so. Harden off the seedlings by gradually acclimating them to the outdoors over seven to ten days after the danger of night frost is over. Prepare the Fennel bed in moderately fertile, loamy, well-draining, neutral pH soil. Mix in a little organic fertilizer too. Transplant the seedlings into the bed with as little root disturbance as possible (it could impair bulb formation). Water well. If the plants try to form flower stalks, pinch them off to keep the plant’s energy directed into the all-important bulb. Fennel gets more beautiful with more usable crunchy sweet-licorice flesh as it grows. It’s ready to harvest when the plant is 18” to 24” tall, and the “bulb” is at least 3” to 5” high. With a sharp knife, cut the thick bulb off just above its base. It may even start to resprout and yield another flattened-round “bulb” from the base, although likely a bit smaller than the first.
To prepare Fennel in the kitchen, cut off the slender stalks above the bulb, but don’t throw them away~use them in clever summer flower arrangements or save the fragrant feathery fronds for use as a garnish. Rinse and quarter the bulb, removing any interior core, although it is usually not necessary, and any discolored exterior layers. If life ever takes over and you miss the right moment to harvest your Fennel and it bolts and goes to seed, don’t despair. Lightly pan roast the seeds and crush them for tomato sauces, savory custards, flat breads and rubs for grilled pork and lamb.
Can’t Cook Without It
Once you experience the delicate flavor, fresh sweet-crisp texture of bulbous Fennel, you won't be able to cook without it. Its mellifluous, slight anise oil flavor is simply addictive. Fennel effortlessly elevates recipes into lighter, more delicious prescriptions for happy, and, dare we say, healthy eating.
Long-cherished in French, Italian and Greek kitchens and bistro cuisine, Fennel is perfectly complemented by the brightness of lemon, lime, or orange. You'll adore mandoline-sliced Fennel in citrusy crisp-raw salads like the amazingly delicious Radicchio, Fennel and Blood Orange Salad recipe that Alice Waters shared with us. Our soon-to-be shared Fennel Flan recipe is wonderful with shellfish, or even as dessert with Grand Marnier-macerated Strawberries.
One of our all-time favorite comfort food recipes is Ina Garten’s Potato-Fennel Gratin available at www.foodnetwork.com. The way that Fennel lightens and brightens Potato recipes is inspirational. If you and your family love freshly harvested Sweet Corn, you'll adore our recipe for Creamy Corn & Fennel. Roasted wedges of Fennel are good solo with blood orange olive oil and sea salt, or combined with Onions, Butternut Squash, Carrots and seedless black grapes in our easy Roasted Vegetable Melange. It's terrific sautéed with Sweet Onions and pureed with steamed Cauliflower, chicken stock and a splash of cream for a refreshing, nutmeg-laced chilled summer soup. You can even cut it into julienned strips, braise it in butter and a little sherry vinegar, and add it to Sunday brunch fritattas. You'll have to let us know what new ways you make Fennel a delicious part of your life.