Fennel is a very versatile vegetable, its seeds, leaves, and bulbs all have unique and equally tasty uses in the kitchen.
It is composed of a bulging white root, made up of compact layers that thin out into a darker green stalks, which in turn form fluffy, feathery leaves.
When you are choosing fennel in a shop, make sure the bulb is firm and solid to touch, it should not have too many signs of splitting, spotting or bruising.
If the bulbs have started flowering it is best to choose another, it means it has gone past its best for eating.
Fennel has a wonderfully fresh aroma not unlike the liquorice-tasting anise and shares a family history with carrots, dill, and parsley.
It is best kept in the fridge to keep it at its freshest, and is a wonderful source of vitamin C and fibre, among other health-giving properties.
In fact in Ancient Greece times it was held in high esteem, associated with the god of food and wine Dionysus, now it is linked with cuisines from all parts of the Mediterranean.
The fennel plant plays an important role in the medicinal as well as food culture of many European nations, especially in France and Italy.
Variations of the plant can be seen growing wild along the roadsides of Italian and Greek islands and its smell wafting through the warm evening air is the perfect holiday scent.
I very often use fennel raw, sliced thinly, it matches well with fresh orange.
I drizzle it with good oil, season, and serve with a dollop of natural yogurt and some finely-chopped mint.
When the bulbs are slow-cooked in oil, the flavour changes considerably, becoming softer and more earthy, smoked chillies work well as does the warm intense flavour of cinnamon.
Once cooked in oil it can last a few days and be served with olives before dinner or sprinkled over a homemade pizza.
The feathery leaves at the top of the bulb can be eaten as well and have a stronger hint of the anise flavour.
The dried seeds of the plant have a more concentrated version of the taste, as most often happens, and they are used in baking and cooking worldwide.
These are more often classed as a spice.
Pork and fennel are good bed fellows and the recipe below is quite a handy one pot dinner, it can be made with other meats instead if you wish.
Pork chops and potato with fennel
a dash of rapeseed oil
6 potatoes, cubed
4 cloves of garlic, roughly crushed
2 small onions, sliced
1 large bulb of fennel, cored then sliced
a handful of thyme, removed from the stalk and chopped
2 tsp of honey
1 tsp of tomato puree or sun-dried tomato paste
200 mls of stock
8 pork chops
Toss the potatoes in the oil, add the onion and garlic and some seasoning.
Place into an ovenproof dish and then place into an oven heated to 180 degrees for ten minutes.
Add the fennel and thyme and stir them into the potatoes.
Add the honey, puree and stock and coat the vegetables.
Cover with tinfoil and place back into the oven for another twenty minutes.
Season the pork chops and place them on top of the dish, removing the foil.
Add a little more stock if needed.
Put back into the oven for a further twenty minutes, until they are cooked through.
Serve a scoop of the vegetables with the pork on top and juices poured over.
Roasted fennel bulb with bacon over pasta
250 mls of olive oil
½ tsp of cayenne pepper or mild chilli powder
2 strips of lemon zest, with a vegetable peeler
4 small fennel bulbs, quartered
pasta for four
4 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
4 streaky back rashers, cubed
100g of Parmesan
Season the oil and heat it with the cayenne pepper and strips of zest.
Add the fennel and cook gently over a low heat for 20 minutes, until the fennel is tender.
Put the pasta on to boil in lightly salted water and drain when cooked
Drain and keep the oil aside for further use.
You can keep some of the fennel in the fridge for use over the coming days.
Use a dash of the oil left over from the fennel and fry the garlic over a low heat until it is starting to change colour.
Add the pieces of bacon and fry until crisp.
Stir the pasta into the pan and season it.
Pull the fennel leaves apart.
Serve the pasta with the fennel on top and sprinkled with the cheese.
Courgette and fennel salad with pink peppercorns
2 tbs of cider vinegar
4 tbs of olive oil
juice ½ a small lemon and the zest of one
2 oranges, skin removed and segmented, saving the juice
2 small fennel bulbs, cored and thinly sliced
2 small courgettes, thinly sliced with a vegetable peeler
2 heads of baby gem lettuce, leaves broken apart
½tsp of pink peppercorns, crushed
Whisk the cider vinegar and oil with the lemon juice and zest as well as the orange juice.
Taste and season.
Add a little honey if you think it is necessary.
Toss the segmented oranges (if this takes too long, remove all the skin and slice the oranges) with the thinly sliced fennel and courgette strips.
Toss the gem lettuce through and serve with the pink peppercorns sprinkled on top.
This makes a lovely lunch with some pan con tomate or cheesy toast.
Treacle hazelnut pancakes with toasted fennel crème fraiche
3 tbs of creme fraiche
3 tsp of fennel seeds, toasted to a dark golden and roughly chopped
1 tsp of honey
zest of 3 oranges
90g plain flour
1½ tbs dark sugar
1½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp cinnamon
2 tsp of ground ginger
2 small eggs
1 tbs treacle
50g hazelnuts, blitzed in a food processor or finely chopped
Mix the toasted fennel seeds into the creme fraiche, with the honey and zest of two of the oranges, set it aside in the fridge.
Stir the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger and the zest of the remaining orange.
Add the eggs one at a time, beating them in until combined.
Stir in the milk slowly until a batter is formed, stir in the treacle and nuts.
Melt the butter in the pan that you will be frying the pancakes in. Pour the butter into the pancake batter and stir it in.
Once the layer of butter in the pan is hot spoon an eighth of the batter into the pan.
Fry until golden them turn the pancake over until golden on the other side.
Repeat this to make eight pancakes in all.
Serve warm with a scoop of the fennel creme fraiche on top.
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