Crunchy and refreshing with a distinct licorice flavor, fennel has been long revered for its culinary and medicinal uses dating all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome. The hardy, perennial bulb is most often associated with European cuisine, particularly French and Italian. The variety most commonly used is bulb, or Florence, fennel. Available year-round, fennel is especially abundant from mid-fall to spring.
Entirely edible, the fennel plant is composed of a white to pale green bulb and stalks with delicate, feathery, vibrant green fronds at the tips. Look for small to medium-sized bulbs that are relatively blemish free with no soft spots. Fennel can keep in a plastic bag for three to four days in the refrigerator, but the fragrance and flavor fade quickly as it ages.
The base of the fennel bulb is the most commonly used portion of the plant. Crunchy and sweet, chopped or shaved raw, fennel adds a delightful addition to salads and platters of crudités. When cooked, fennel’s licorice flavor becomes more subtle. Chop and sauté fennel to use in most recipes that call for celery such as soups, risotto, stuffing, pasta sauce and meatloaf or meatballs. Both the fennel base and the stalks benefit from braising in a touch of chicken or vegetable broth; serve topped with shaved Parmesan cheese or a squeeze of lemon juice.
Use the chartreuse green fronds as you would any fresh herb. With a flavor and aroma similar to tarragon or chervil, the bright fronds can be added to tomato sauce and soup or sprinkled over baked fish at the end of cooking. Toss into sautéed or roasted vegetables such as carrots, beets or potatoes, or add fennel fronds to marinades, vinaigrettes, tuna, crab and chicken salads. These wispy tendrils also provide a striking presentation for any garnish as well.
To prepare the bulb, trim off the stalks and fronds, reserving if desired. Trim about 1/2 inch off from the root end. Slice the bulb horizontally, or place the bulb, flat side down, on a cutting board, then cut the bulb vertically in half. Place the bulb halves, flat side down; cut each half vertically into slices or wedges.