Crunchy, fresh and licorice-flavored, fennel offers a welcome change of pace during the winter months, when starchy tubers tend to dominate. Whitney Wright, a senior editor and photographer for Gilt Taste, points out that the vegetable is versatile both in taste and in texture.
“It is one of the easiest ingredients to use,” she said “The entire plant can be used in cooking, which is great. And you can eat it — everything — from raw to super braised cooked really soft. So it’s pretty hard to screw up fennel.”
Wright, who also writes the blog Feeding Mr. Wright, explained that fennel can be used in all of its various forms. When preparing it, she provided an easy rule as to what keep and what to discard: Keep all of it. She said that, at the most, she’ll just slice off and toss the bottom part of the bulb if it’s a little dirty.
“You can use the stems the same way you’d use the bulb,” Wright said. “The bulb is super crunchy, it’s crisp, so it’s wonderful raw, especially when it’s sliced very thin.” The licorice flavor also pairs particularly well with other winter ingredients like citrus and parmesan.
As for the stems, Wright operates on instinct and uses the celery-like stalks just like, well, celery. She said that the cooked stems are just as tender as the bulb and can be braised, used in soups and grilled.
There’s a notable advantage to fennel’s subtle licorice flavor: It can be used in both savory or sweet applications without overpowering other flavors. For instance, while the bulbs can be used as the base for a creamy gratin (see Wright’s recipe below), its fronds can also be chopped finely and mixed with ice cream.
(Photo: Whitney Wright/Whitney Wright)
While Florence fennel is usually what is found at supermarkets, less well known is a type that’s grown just for its seeds. “The seeds have a variety of uses, you can use them in baking, you can use them in teas,” explained Wright. “I have an Italian friend and I know her grandmother chews on them after dinner to kind of act as a digestif. And also people use it to freshen their breath.” She says she’s purchased the seeds online, but suspects they’d be found in the spice aisle of the grocery store.
With so many forms and such a subtle yet complex taste, fennel provides a surprising variety to current seasonal offerings. One convenient way to serve it up during the holidays is in gratin form.
Try Wright’s recipe for that, below.
Easy Fennel Gratin
by Whitney Wright
Serves 4-6 (as a side dish)
- 1 whole fennel bulb, stems and fronds
(1 to 1.5 lbs)
- 1.5 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 garlic clove, finely minced or grated on a microplane
- 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, divided
- Freshly cracked pepper
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- 3/4 cup of breadcrumbs
- 3 springs of thyme, leaves stripped from the stems
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Pluck the bright green feathery fronds from the fennel bulb. Roughly chop and set aside. Cut the stems from the bulb, and roughly julienne. Cut the bulb in half, and then each half into eight wedges. Whisk together the heavy cream, salt, garlic and 1/2 of the Parmesean cheese. Toss the fennel wedges and cut stems into the mixture. Pour into a 9x9 baking dish (or similar). Crack fresh paper evenly over the top of the gratin.
Bake the fennel for 20 minutes at 375 degrees. While the fennel is baking, melt the butter in a small saucepan. When the butter is melted, add the thyme leaves and let cook for 30 seconds. Add the bread crumbs and mix well.
Turn the oven down to 350 degrees after 20 minutes. Pull out the baking gratin and top with the breadcrumb mixture. Bake for 20 minutes more.
Let cool for a few minutes before serving and garnish with the chopped fennel fronds.