exploring the vegetable world – what to do with fennel

Fennel – one of my favourite vegetables. Over the last few months, I’ve found that fennel has come up in conversation on numerous occasions. This might not be note-worthy in itself, but there has been a theme to these discussions. It seems that my mates are loving this sweet veg when they come across it in restaurants. The problem is that they don’t know what they would do if a bulb up followed them home. So this week I thought I’d pull together a bit of a guide for fennel cooking virgins.

First, lets talk about the bits you can eat:

Bulb – there are two main types of fennel you’ll find in your veggie shop – large and baby. The large bulbs have a stronger flavour and I find them best for dishes where you’re going to cook the fennel. The baby bulbs are lovely kept fresh and thinly sliced in salads. For both types I discard the green stalky bits as they tend to be woody and not so flavoursome.

Fronds – the leafy top bits, which look a bit like the herb dill, are edible and usually sprinkled on top of things at the last minute to freshen and add a bit of colour. Sometimes you’ll find your veggie supplier will sell their fennel with the fronds removed.

Seeds – these are usually found in the spice section and look a little like fat cumin seeds. They are one of the stars of my secret spice blend. If you feel like a herbal tea – just drop a dozen or so seeds in the bottom of a cup, cover with boiling water and allow to steep for a few minutes.

Pollen – literally the dust from the flowers. It is collected from the flowers of the fennel plant when they’re doing their thing. I’ve only recently become aware of an organisation in California who are producing fennel pollen commercially and am keen to try some out. Their description is intriguing – apparently it enhances the flavour of other foods and tastes a little like curry rather than fennel seeds or anise. Watch this space.

With so many different edible bits, our friend fennel is pretty versatile in the kitchen. Here are a list of the types of ways you can use it. If you are going to try only one – I highly recommend starting with a shaved salad.

Shaved Salads – A quick scan of the stonesoup recipe archives is a testament to my love of a fresh, crunchy, shaved fennel salad. There’s a salad of shaved baby fennel & radish, an orange fennel & olive salad, a winter tabouli, a shaved fennel, dill & baby spinach salad,  and my all time favourite – that I adopted from Karen Martini – shaved fennel salad with ricotta & peas.

Braised Fennel - This is a brilliant vegetarian main course. Using large fennel which are browned on each side and then simmered with tomatoes, white wine and olives. The fennel takes on a lovely sweetness but at the same time is so hearty that you’d be forgiven for thinking there was some meat in there somewhere.

Soups – One of my early blog posts was a pork and fennel soup. Fennel makes a lovely addition to seafood soups, vegetable soups or a minestrone. My mum didn’t ever use fennel in her lamb and veggie soup but I have been known to sneak some in. Except, of course when I was testing the recipe for my book.

Fish – There’s something magic about fish and fennel together. A shaved salad is an easy accompaniment to pan fried fish. Other options are to bake a whole fish on a bed of sliced fennel with some lemon or use thinly sliced fennel as a stuffing for a BBQ whole fish like this ocean trout I cooked for ‘fake’ Christmas one year.

Pasta & Risotto – I think my first ever experiment with fennel was a crab and fennel risotto made with canned crab meat. At the time I thought it was the most amazing thing. It wasn’t until years later that I braved the world of fresh crab meat that I realised just how much the fennel had rescued the dish. Finocchio, as it is know in Italy, is often used in risottos like this mussel and fennel risotto inspired by Jamie Oliver or pastas like my latest favourite – pork and fennel ragu. The fennel cooks down into the tomatoey sauce to give a sweetness that compliments the pork meat. It also makes for a lighter ragu compared with your traditional bolognese style dishes – bring on the finocchio.

two hour pork & fennel ragu
serves 6

I’ve called this the two hour ragu to remind myself how much time it needs so I don’t get any crazy ideas that this is the perfect thing for dinner when I get home at 7.30pm. That said, as far as ragus go – two hours is pretty quick so if you have a hankering for a slow cooked meat sauce for your pasta but are short on time, this could be just the thing.

The most important part of this dish is sourcing good quality pork sausages. If you can’t see chunks of meat through the sausage skin, keep looking. This makes a fair amount of ragu, if you’re only cooking for a few people I’d still make the full quantity and then freeze what you don’t need for a lovely quick mid week meal.

I like to serve short chunky pasta like rigatoni with this ragu but feel free to use whatever you prefer. Parpadelle would work well as would other short pasta like penne.

2T olive oil
1 large brown onion, peeled & chopped
1 large bulb fennel
1 clove garlic, sliced
6 Italian style pork sausages
1T fennel seeds, optional
3 x 400g (14oz) can tomatoes
500g rigatoni or other short pasta
extra virgin olive oil, to serve
parmesan cheese, to serve

Heat oil in a large saucepan or flame proof casserole dish over medium heat. Add onion and while the onion starts to cook prepare the fennel. Chop and discard the green stalks from the top of the bulb and then trim the bottom. Cut in half lengthwise and then roughly chop, similar to how you would chop an onion. Add fennel to the pan and cover. Cook stirring occasionally until the veg have softened but not browned. If they start to brown, turn the heat down a little.

Remove the cover, increase the heat to medium high and squeeze the sausages out of their skins into bight sized chunks in the pan. Add the garlic and fennel seeds and cook until the sausages have browned. Add tomatoes and their juices and bring to the boil.

Reduce heat to very low and simmer, stirring occasionally until reduced down and thickened to your liking. Season well.

While the ragu is cooking, bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil and cook pasta for the amount of time listed on the packet. Taste and when al dente drain and return to the saucepan. Stir through enough ragu to make the pasta look well sauced but not overwhelmed. You may not need all of the sauce.

Divide between warm pasta bowls and drizzle with your best quality extra virgin olive oil. Serve with parmesan and a cheese grater passed separately.

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If you prefer to avoid fancy food and cooking – check out my book of my mum’s recipes – ‘and the love is free‘.

Good simple Aussie food and only available through stonesoup HERE.

To hear more about the book in a podcast I did with Victoria from Bite Sized Cooking click HERE.

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{ 10 comments }

heather August 4, 2009 at 7:22 am

I am all over this recipe. Fennel is so underrated and underutilized in the States. I adore it, but I’m fairly certain my boyfriend has never heard of it, nor could he pick it out of a vegetable lineup. Sad. I’m going to make this and show him what it’s all about! Thanks.

Cheers,

*Heather*

Hollowlegs August 4, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Fennel is right up there in the vegetable pantheon in our house. I was introduced to it years ago by a vegan friend. Needless to say, her recipes didn’t feature pork sausage but she did (and does) make a sensational fennel risotto which includes tomato and chilli. We also slice baby fennel, brush it with oil and roast or barbeque it, make the delicious gratin of fennel and tomato from Luisa Weiss’ blog, The Wednesday Chef (sorry, can’t work out how to add a link here!) or use it in a simple pasta sauce. My 19 month old son is perfectly happy to munch away on fennel in all its guises – even the shaved raw variety (gotta start them young).

jennifer August 5, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Wonderfully informative, thank you so much!

jules August 6, 2009 at 1:05 pm

hi heather
lovely to hear from a fellow fennel fan. hope this is the recipe to convert your boyfriend to the cause. good luck

hollowlegs – great name
That fennel risotto sounds right up my alley as does the fennel gratin.
glad to hear your son is getting into his fennel early

glad you found it useful jennifer. thanks for dropping by

rach August 9, 2009 at 11:16 pm

There is no shortage of fennel here in Rome, at the right time of year the market is heaving with it and italians prize it highly very often serving simple chunks of it after the main course to clean the mouth.
thankyou for all your lovely fennel ideas
the ragu looks most excellent.
magical photos as always
x

jules August 13, 2009 at 11:03 am

thanks rach – lucky you getting to enjoy fennel in rome – love the idea as using it for a mouth cleanser

Alan February 17, 2010 at 9:40 pm

The BEST fennel dish, and probably in my top 3 favourite meals is the sensational and incredibly easy one from Jamie. Can’t praise it high enough and have dinner party tested it to success! Going to try yours tonight as well!

http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/fish-recipes/tasty-fish-bake

Susan February 17, 2010 at 11:37 pm

I too love fennel–I roast it, gratin it, eat it raw with dip, and now…I’ll put it in ragu–thank you for the lovely recipe.

Hilary April 28, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Just made this tonight with my own twist (because it was what we had on hand). We swapped out chicken sausages and I added some mint (which is my new favorite thing in tomato sauce) and it was really delicious and a beautiful spring dinner.

Thanks for the inspiration!

P.S. found you via Tastespotting

Rosemary Farley May 18, 2011 at 5:03 pm

It’s a year on from the last post. I love fennel and I have just cooked a large one sliced long ways with oil, drizzle of good balsamic vinegar and garlic. I was going to use it as part of tonight’s dinner, but one left! Delicious. I going to try the pork and fennel recipe.

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