Usually I would start this article by saying how I never liked or ate a particular food as a child but learned how amazing it was as an adult. Not this time. Nope, this time I can start by telling you that I used to eat raw fennel as a snack when I was a child. My mother was always looking for low-calorie, healthier snacks to munch on and somewhere between the butter-free popcorn (blah) and the tiny cups of ice milk trying to pass as ice cream, she found fennel. Fennel or fenuk, as it is called in Italian, is crunchy and tastes like licorice. It’s a satisfying snack that also freshens your breath. Win-win. It also pulls double-duty as a vegetable and an herb. Triple-duty if you count that you can use the fronds for garnishing.
Fennel comes into season in fall and is available through early spring. It can be used from bulb to fronds. The bulbs have overlapping layers of fennel, sort of like a cabbage. The stalks are similar to celery in both texture and crunch. The feathery fronds look like fresh dill but taste like anise. Fennel seeds can be bought whole or ground and add a bright note to dishes. Here are some ways you can try cooking with fennel tonight.
1. Use Raw in Salads
One of the first salads I ever made that was “out there” for me was my Orange Fennel Salad. It went against every salad notion I used to hold: it has no lettuce, it has fruit and it has nuts. The salad is an amazing dish of sliced celery stalks plus the leaves, sliced fennel bulbs, orange segments, toasted walnuts and fennel fronds for garnish. This salad is so beautiful. To prep the fennel, cut across the bulb to slice the fennel. You can also cut the bulb in half lengthwise. Slice the core away. Cut the halves into slices of your desired thickness. The dressing for this masterpiece is my Agave-Mustard Dressing. Simply whisk together 2 Tbs. Dijon mustard, 2 Tbs. lemon or lime juice, ½ minced garlic clove, 1-2 Tbs. agave nectar, 3 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. For a spicy version, mix in ½ jalapeno pepper that has been seeded and minced. Other amazing salads to try are this Mizuna, Fennel and Mulberry Salad and this Arugula Fennel Salad with Creamy Lemon Dressing.
2. Make a Slaw
Another way to use fennel in its raw state is to add it to a slaw. The bright anise taste brightens up the cabbage for a slaw that will have everyone asking you what your secret ingredient is. To make Fennel Slaw: remove the core from a bulb of fennel, cut the bulb into quarters and then slice each quarter thinly. Toss the fennel with ½ head of thinly sliced purple cabbage, 1 thinly sliced red bell pepper and 3 thinly sliced scallions. In a separate bowl, combine ¼ cup vegan mayo, 3 Tbs. apple cider vinegar, 1 tsp. agave nectar and salt and pepper to taste. Add the dressing to the slaw and toss to coat. Mix in the reserved fennel fronds. Let sit for at least 30 minutes before serving. Check out 10 Ways to Make Awesome Slaws without Dairy.
3. Roasted Fennel
No cooking method brings out the natural sweetness of a vegetable like roasting does. Fennel is already a bit sweet and roasting intensifies its flavors as in this Roasted Fennel dish. Cut 4 fennel bulbs into 1/3-inch slices and place them in an oiled baking dish. Chop the fronds and reserve them for garnish. Toss the fennel with olive oil, kosher salt and black pepper. Roast in a 375 degree oven for 40 minutes or until fork-tender. Sprinkle grated vegan Parmesan over the fennel and put it back in the oven or broiler for 5 more minutes or until golden brown. Garnish with the reserved chopped fennel fronds. Another delicious way to roast fennel is this Grapefruit Coriander Fennel Bites.
4. Braised Fennel
Fennel is known for its crunch but it’s also delicious when cooked in flavorful liquid until tender. You can braise it alone or mix it with other veggies like carrots and parsnips. To make Braised Fennel, Carrots and Parsnips: slice 4 parsnips and 4 carrots diagonally into ½”-inch pieces. Cut 2 fennel bulbs into quarters, cut the core out and chop the fennel. Reserve the fronds. Heat 1 Tbs. oil in a deep saute pan and saute one chopped onion and 3 minced garlic cloves until softened. Add the parsnips, carrots and fennel to the pan and toss to mix with the onions. Add 1-2 cups vegetable broth, about ¼-inch high, and 1 tsp. dried thyme. Simmer covered for 25 minutes until the veggies are tender. Uncover and cook 5 more minutes. Garnish with the reserved fennel fronds.
5. Sauteed Fennel
For a quicker way to cook fennel, get out your skillet for a flavorful saute. To make Sauteed Fennel: heat 1 Tbs. oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat. Add 2 minced garlic cloves and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Thinly slice 2 heads of fennel and add it to the pan. Toss to coat in the garlic oil. Cook the fennel, tossing it frequently. Season with kosher salt and black pepper to taste. Once the fennel starts to brown and caramelize, add a Tbs. of water to the pan and cover it for just a minute. The fennel will steam a bit and soften. Serve while hot. See 10 Creative Ideas to Stir-Fry and Saute Spinach for 10 recipes you can use with fennel.
6. Pickled Fennel
Pickled foods are super-healthy and they are quicker to make than you might think. They make great condiments or toppings for sandwiches. To make Pickled Fennel: take 4 small heads of fennel and cut the stalks away. Slice the bulbs in half and take the cores out. Slice the bulbs thinly with a mandoline and put them in a colander. Sprinkle 2 Tbs. kosher salt over the fennel and allow it to sit for about an hour to remove excess liquid. Squeeze out the excess liquid and transfer the fennel to a large bowl. Season with ½ tsp. black pepper. If you like, you can add some citrus, such as orange slices, for an extra-bright flavor. Transfer the fennel to a jar or air-tight container and cover with 1 cup of apple cider vinegar. Make sure the fennel is coated with the vinegar. Keep the covered jar or container in the fridge for several hours or overnight before serving. Check out How to Add More Pickled Foods to Your Diet for more pickling ideas.
7. Use in Desserts
It may seem strange to use fennel when making desserts but if you think about it, fennel tastes like licorice and licorice is candy and candy is kind of dessert…so it makes perfect sense! Fennel pairs well with apple, orange, and lemon flavors. I combined apple and fennel to make my Mini Apple-Fennel Galettes. To make the dough: combine 3 ½ cups gluten-free, all-purpose flour, ¼ cup sugar, 1 tsp. xanthan or guar gum, 1 cup cold vegan butter, and ¼ cup coconut oil in a food processor. Pulse until you have crumbles of dough. Add 1/3 cup ice cold water and pulse until it comes together as a dough. Transfer the dough to a floured work surface. Cut it in half and shape each half into a smooth disk. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for one hour.
In a large bowl, combine 4 apples sliced thinly, 1 fennel bulb sliced thinly, 1 Tbs. lemon juice, 1 Tbs. brown rice flour, 1 ½ tsp. ground cinnamon, ½ tsp. ground nutmeg, and 1 tsp. vanilla. Toss to mix and coat all the apple slices. Add ¼ cup sugar and 3 Tbs. water and mix everything well. Take one half of the dough and divide it into 4 pieces. Using a floured rolling pin, roll each piece into a thin circle that is about 6 inches in diameter. Transfer the dough circles onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Arrange the apple-fennel filling in the middle of each dough circle leaving a one-inch border. Fold the edges of the dough up over the filling. Repeat with the second half of the dough until you have 8 mini-galettes. Brush the galettes with non-dairy milk and sprinkle with 2 tsp. sugar. Bake at 400 degrees for 40 minutes, turning the pans around halfway through. Allow to cool. Serve at room temperature or warm with non-dairy vanilla ice cream. If you have questions about gluten-free baking, take a look at The Ultimate Gluten-Free Vegan Baking Substitution Guide for answers.
8. Make Soup
Fennel and tomatoes pair well and the two come together to make a delicious soup. To make Tomato Fennel Soup: Heat 1 Tbs. oil in a large pot. Saute 1 chopped onion and 3 minced garlic cloves until softened. Add ½ chopped bulb of fennel and cook for 5 minutes. Add 1 Tbs. tomato paste and mix it in with the vegetables. Mix in a 28-oz. can of crushed tomatoes, 1 tsp. dried oregano, ½ tsp. black pepper and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Add 6 cups water or vegetable broth. Bring the soup to a boil and then reduce the heat and let simmer for at least one hour or until the fennel is tender. If you want the soup smooth, transfer to a blender or use an immersion blender to puree it. Season with salt and garnish with 2 Tbs. fresh chopped parsley and chopped fennel fronds. Fennel would also taste great in carrot or other root vegetable soups.
9. Comfort Food
Because fennel is a hearty, crunchy vegetable, it holds up well when cooked for longer periods of time. It’s similarity to celery makes it a good choice for comfort foods like stuffings, stews, gratins and casseroles. To make an amazing Kale, Fennel and White Bean Cheesy Gratin: Heat 1 Tbs. oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add 1 thinly sliced onion and 1 thinly sliced fennel bulb and cook for 8 minutes until the veggies are softened. Mix in 3 minced garlic cloves and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Add 1 or 2 large bunches of chopped kale, a little at a time, letting it wilt to make room for more. Add a pinch of nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Stir in 1 Tbs. flour and 1 cup of coconut milk. Cook until the sauce thickens a bit and then add 3 cups cannellini beans. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. While it is simmering, in a small bowl combine bread crumbs, olive oil, chopped parsley and grated vegan Parmesan. Mix it up and set aside. Transfer the veggies from the pot to an oiled casserole dish. Top with the bread crumb mixture and bake in a 400 degree oven for half an hour. When the casserole is browned and bubbling, remove from the oven and let rest for at least 10 minutes before serving. Check out 7 Ways to Make Your Favorite Vegan Comfort Foods Lighter.
10. Flavor Food with the Herb
Make sure your spice cabinet is always stocked with fennel seed to add bright flavor to your cooking. I love to use it to make Fennel-Scented Marinara Sauce. In a medium-sized saucepan, heat 2 tsp. olive oil over medium heat. Add ½ of a red onion, minced and 4 cloves minced garlic. Saute until the onion is softened, about 4 minutes. Add 1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes and 1 15-oz. can diced tomatoes. Season with 1 tsp. dried oregano, ½ tsp. ground fennel seeds, ½ tsp. black pepper and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Season with kosher salt to taste. Cover the pan and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and add fresh torn basil, if desired. Use on your favorite Italian dishes. Fennel seeds are also a prominent ingredient in my Gluten-Free Vegan Spicy Italian Sausages that are made with black-eyed peas.
If fennel hasn’t been on your usual shopping list, add it this week and try any (or all) of these recipes and ideas. Fennel is not only delicious but it’s healthy. Read how This Unique Vegetable Has the Power to Do Wonders for Your Digestion while munching on raw fennel as a snack.
Image Source: Alice Henneman/Flickr