It’s a rarity in the kitchen: a vegetable that’s sweet.
But that’s just part of the allure of fennel, a Mediterranean staple that’s finally catching on with American cooks and diners.
“One of the main things I like about fennel is its versatility and the way its flavor changes from raw to cooked,” said award-winning author Georgeanne Brennan, whose cookbook “La Vie Rustic: Cooking and Living in the French Style” (Weldon Owen, 290 pages, $35) features four fennel recipes.
“Raw, it’s crunchy and definitely has a licoricelike flavor, which is wonderful with things like anchovies and Parmesan cheese,” said Brennan. “I like to julienne it, toss it with an anchovy- and Parmesan-laden vinaigrette, or to thinly slice and chop it to add to any salad.”
While fennel’s licorice taste can be rather pronounced (sometimes overpowering) when eaten raw, it blends in with other ingredients when cooked.
“Cooked, the flavor mellows to a pleasant hint of anise,” Brennan added, “and the fennel becomes meltingly soft.”
Despite this vegetable’s centuries of use in Europe, fennel fear seems common among American cooks. Several food bloggers – from Serious Eats to My Kitchen Harvest – have written about their personal experience with fennel phobia.
Some eaters can’t get past fennel’s licorice scent and flavor. It reminds them of Good & Plenty candy.
In California, fennel is treated as a cool season crop with the biggest, bulbous bundles showing up in farmers markets in March and April.
Those who have discovered fennel’s flair gravitate to this unusual veggie, which looks like pale celery wearing a wispy bright green wig.