I came home from this week’s CSA with two massive fennel bulbs complete with long stalks and the biggest toppings of frilly fronds I’ve ever seen. This was going to take a little work, and I suspected there would be fennel in just about every meal this week. I was right on both counts, but boy did I have a blast cooking up a storm, and tucking a few treasurers in the freezer for later as well.
I did not grow up eating fennel, it just wasn’t part of our rural New England fare when I was a kid. But in my 20s, I discovered this delicious vegetable and fell promptly in love! And there’s a lot to love about it! It can be a bit finicky to grow, but every year I tuck in a dozen or so plants simply for the flowers. The flowers and pollen are the absolute tastiest part of the plant, and ‘fennel pollen’ which is actually both the flowers and the pollen, is one of the most expensive spices to buy. Luckily, like saffron, a little goes a long ways.
Every part edible
Native to southern Europe, the plant has naturalized in Northern Europe, North America, and Australia as well, and its habit of freely seeding has made it invasive in the wild in some areas. Used as both a vegetable and an herb, fennel is a member of the carrot and parsley family, every part of the plant is edible from the bulb to the flowers and pollen. Nothing is wasted. Closely related in taste to anise, its subtle licorice flavor is sweeter and milder, especially when cooked. A highly nutritious low-calorie vegetable, a cup serving yields just 27 calories, 6 grams of carbs, almost 3 g. of fiber. A good source of Vitamins C and K, folate, potassium, sodium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, and calcium. A good source of fiber, the vegetable has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and anti-viral effects.
Let’s toss in a little magic too
Hung over doors in medieval times to ward off evil spirits, the plant has long been used both magically and medicinally. According to American Heritage Vegetables, the plant was also hung in homes to freshen the air in closed-up rooms. It was used as an additive to gin, and the seeds chewed to sweeten the breath and ward off hunger as well as those evil spirits. A fennel tea is excellent for any number of digestive problems and heartburn, and helps to stimulate milk production in nursing mothers. Its flavonoids have been shown to help prevent cancer and reduce the risk of heart disease. So, if you think you don’t like fennel, maybe you should give it another try!
Harvest time is always a challenge to consume or otherwise store the sudden overabundance of our produce. I remember well my mother and I sitting at the table prepping green beans we had picked by the bushel basketful, or making pickles once the cucumbers all came in at once, usually about the same time we had to start making tomato sauce for canning. Blackberries needed to be frozen or made into jam. Once the frost called, we stripped those tomato plants and made flavorful green tomato mincemeat, memories I cherish. Seasonal eating at its best.
I certainly gave fennel a workout this week, and had lots of fun playing with my treasures. I started by breaking down the vegetables into the bulbs, the stems, and the feathery leaves. There were plenty of them to be had. While the fennel stems when raw are a bit too fibrous to enjoy, when chopped up and cooked they are a delightful addition to soups, stews, casseroles, frittatas, etc. They are usually tossed out along with all but a few of the fluffy foliage! The tasty fronds are easily air dried for storage all winter, and used fresh.
The bulbs I bought were not flowering or seeding, but I always have fennel seeds on hand and grow some in my garden every year. I certainly put those flavorful seeds to work this week! I chopped up my stems and saved a portion for some stuffed delicata squash the first night of cooking. I saved a few more stalks for some soup. The rest of the stalks went into a large kettle along with a big onion and a carrot and some of the fronds and this was transformed into a half-gallon of luscious stock. I dried some of the fennel fronds for use this winter, used some fresh throughout the week, and the rest I made into a batch of pesto that I will use on pasta in a day or so. I sliced up the bulb into a delicious baked au gratin dish I served along with some fish. After tucking some of the stock away, I made a quick tomato-fennel soup. There were plenty of leftovers from everything. Once my ‘fennel pollen’ is ready, I plan to try a special stuffing from my friend Terrie’s recipe at Comfort du Jour to highlight some sole. I can taste it already, even though I haven’t quite figured out the dish other than her stuffing.
Did I get tired of the fennel? Absolutely not. The flavors of each dish were distinctive and had their own character. The delicata dish was squash forward with just a hint of the fennel and delicious chewiness of the wild rice. The fennel au gratin was up front fennel, but the dominant flavor of the soup was the tomato. All very different.
A little time, a lot of reward
Nothing took a lot of time other than simmering and baking, and all the dishes could have been easily made on a Sunday afternoon. After eating like royalty this week, we still have two pints of stock, one quart of tomato soup, two stuffed squash, and pesto in the freezer for other weeks ahead.
Not bad for two bulbs of fennel, and I had a little sprig left over to place above my door. It’s always good to cover all your bases. I will post the recipes for the Delicata Squash Stuffed with Wild Rice and Fennel and Baked Fennel Au Gratin soon. Stay tuned.
Now, about all that kale…
Fennel Vegetable Stock
Large bunch of fennel stalks and fronds and bulb trimmings, chopped
Large onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 tsp. crushed fennel seeds
Tuck everything in a stock pot with 8-10 cups of water, or adjust if you have fewer trimmings. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for a half hour or more, correct seasoning, then let cool to room temperature. Use or freeze. Great in making rice, added to soups, or helping out with a sauce.
Tomato and Fennel Soup
This is a quick version using canned tomatoes if you have the stock made. If you have a bounty right now of fresh tomatoes, please use a quart of chopped fresh tomatoes (don’t bother to seed or peel) rather than the can of tomatoes. You will have to let it simmer a bit longer, but it will taste even better! I had some red wine open, so I tossed it in. You can also add a couple of tablespoons of red wine vinegar instead.
1 large onion, small dice
About a cup of fennel stalks, small dice
¼ cup tomato paste
1 tsp. fennel seed, crushed
2 cloves garlic, minced
Splash of red wine, optional
1 28-oz. can whole tomatoes, crushed up
1 quart fennel vegetable stock
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese, or vegan Parmesan, optional
Sauté the onion and fennel stems in a bit of olive oil. Add the fennel seed, tomato paste, and garlic and let cook or a minute to bloom. Deglaze with the wine, cook a few more minutes, them add the tomatoes and stock.
Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and let simmer for a half hour. If using fresh tomatoes, let it go a bit longer. Add the Parmesan and mix well.
Blitz everything with a hand or traditional blender or food processor until desired consistency. If you like creamed soup, add your whitener now.
Serve with some crostini with fennel pesto, or croutons, and drizzle with a bit of best olive oil.
Large handful of fennel fronds
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
2 garlic cloves
¼ cup Parmesanor vegan Parm
Extra Virgin olive oil
The measurements need not be precise here. You can tuck a leaf or two of basil in as well to heighten the flavors. Put everything in the food processor and whirl it all up, adding the olive oil to your desired consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste. Use as you would any flavorful pesto.
I smeared this on some toast and garnished with just a touch of fennel pollen. Superb!