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