Aromatic and crunchy, fennel makes its most abundant appearance in local supermarkets at this time of year.
Sales are most brisk at year end, when the local 50 acres’ worth supplements a steady supply from the West Coast. “The rest of the year, it’s not a big mover. It’s more of a niche item,” said Joe Granata of RLB Distributors in West Caldwell, who sources fennel from California and locally for the Kings Super Markets. “It’s just strange that during the holidays you sell it and the rest of the year it doesn’t sell. It’s got a nice flavor to it. I don’t know why it’s not taken off.”
With its bulbous white base, celery-like stalks and head of dill-like leaves, fennel is certainly easy to spot in the produce section — and maybe a tad off-putting. “I think people just don’t know what to do with it. They’re intimidated just by looking at it,” said James Laird, the chef and co-owner of Restaurant Serenade in Chatham.
At its best, fresh fennel will be shiny white and bright green, with perky leaves and a snowy, blemish-free base. But there can be “a big disconnect between what comes out of the farm and what’s getting tossed on the shelf,” noted Rick Van Vranken, an agricultural agent for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County. “When you first cut it out of the field, it’s succulent. But it’s fairly impossible to keep. It can dehydrate quickly. It has a big cut surface at the bottom, which dries out.”
Fennel’s petioles — the wraparound leaf stems that form the base and branch out into stalks — will lose their luster as they dry out and scar if mishandled, he explained. Produce managers can do further damage by trimming the tops and bottoms. “Once you start trimming it, it will oxidize and turn brown,” said Granata.
In fields where fennel grows, such as at Formisano Farms in Buena, the state’s largest producer, the air is sweet with a licorice-like aroma. The recent cold snap cut short the Formisanos’ fennel harvest of 20 acres this year. “About 97 percent of it has been harvested and shipped,” said Ralph Formisano.
A member of the parsley family, fennel appears in three guises. Bitter fennel, the original wild form of the plant, is used as an herb. Sweet fennel is cultivated for its seeds. Sometimes marketed as “anise” or “sweet anise,” Florence fennel, the type most widely grown here, was developed in the 17th century and is used as a vegetable. It is a good source of vitamin C, folate, potassium, niacin, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, copper and dietary fiber. And all three parts of the plant — the base (referred to as the bulb in many recipes), stalks and leaves — can be put to good use.
“The easiest thing to do with it is cut it up into thin slices and toss it with really good olive oil and salt and pepper, and maybe just a squeeze of lemon juice for some acid,” said Formisano.
Laird suggested combining it with other seasonal ingredients, such as escarole and arugula, in a balsamic dressing. “Grate it and put it in your salad. It goes great with citrus,” he added. Fennel also can be roasted alone or mixed with other vegetables, such as carrots, celery and squash. At his restaurant, Laird makes a fennel puree of boiled fennel with white wine, butter and a touch of Pernod, an anise-flavored liqueur, to accompany salmon. He also pairs pickled fennel with foie gras. Snipped, the feathery leaves can be added to stuffing and salad or used to garnish soup, he said.
“To cook it, peel the fibrous stringy membrane from the outside as you would celery sticks and then cut the bulbs into wedges. Braise the wedges, in a single layer, in just enough water or broth to come about halfway up their sides,” wrote James Peterson in “Cooking” (Ten Speed Press, 2007). Blanched fennel slices can be dipped into beaten egg, coated in bread crumbs and fried.
Inserting fennel stalks into a turkey before roasting will infuse it with a delicate perfume. Peeled and chopped, the stalks can be pan-fried in garlic and olive oil, then braised in stock until tender, according to Jeff Cox in “The Organic Food Shopper’s Guide” (Wiley, $14.95). Blanched, the fronds can be used in place of basil to make pesto, he suggested. In such a case, mashed anchovies should be used instead of grated cheese.
If, despite your best intentions, the dinner hour strikes and your fennel remains sitting in the back of your refrigerator, you can still serve it in classic Italian style: Slice the bulb into small wedges, rinse, and present it at the end of the meal as a digestif.
Straight from the farm
Fresh fennel is sold by the case at Formisano Farms in Buena. Call (856) 697-0909 for prices and availability.
To prepare fennel for braising or roasting:
Cut the stalks off where they join the bulb. You can slice the stalks and use them in broths or freeze them for later use. Or, you can leave them whole and dry them by leaving them in the open air, then tossing them on the grill when grilling whole fish.
Peel the stringy outer layer off the bulb.
Cut the bulb in half, then cut each half into wedges with some core attached.
— Source “Cooking” by James Peterson (Ten Speed Press, 2007).