A decidedly odd-looking vegetable, fennel resembles a feathery dill plant growing from a pot-bellied celery. Its flavor belies that off-kilter appearance, with a fragrant note of licorice and a fresh, juicy crunch. Fennel serves as a mainstay of the Mediterranean kitchen, with the delicate fronds used as a fresh herb and the woody, celery-like stems flavoring broths and sauces. Most recipes, though, revolve around the thick, flavorful bulb.
Many of the most memorable fennel dishes braise the aromatic vegetable. Cut your bulb into wedges and saute them gently in a bit of oil, with onions or garlic, then simmer the fennel in broth or sauce until meltingly tender. Fennel that's slow-cooked this way has a distinctively rich and creamy texture. For a variation on the basic theme, slice the bulb thinly and layer it into a casserole or baking dish. Bake it slowly with tomatoes, capers and other Mediterranean flavors, or treat it as a gratin and finish it with a topping of buttered breadcrumbs.
Many recipes capitalize on fennel’s unusual natural sweetness by caramelizing the cut surfaces. It's often blanched in boiling water first, to par-cook it and speed the softening process. Perhaps the simplest way to caramelize the vegetable is on your stovetop, in a heavy skillet with a small amount of oil. Use thin wedges or lengthwise slices, and cook them at moderate heat until the cut surface cooks to a deep golden-brown and the rest of the bulb is tender. You can achieve a similar result on the grill or in a hot oven, brushing the cut surfaces with oil and cooking at high temperature.
Stuffing fennel is a less conventional alternative, but a striking one. Trim away the stalks and fronds -- keep them for another use -- and par-cook the bulb by steaming or boiling it for a few minutes. Separate the bulb into individual stems and arrange them in a baking dish, concave side up. Fill each stem with a seafood-, meat- or grain-based stuffing, pour a small amount of broth into the bottom of the casserole, and bake until tender. For a showier dish, hollow out the center of the bulb but leave it intact. Spread the outer stems as wide as you can, and pack the stems and hollow with filling. Bake the whole bulb upright in a casserole until tender.
Don't Cook It at All
Although fennel is delightful when prepared by almost any cooking method, sometimes it's best not to cook it at all. Shave the bulb into thin slices and add it to your favorite green salad, and sprinkle chopped fennel fronds over the top as a garnish. Sliced fennel makes a fine salad with apples and walnuts, or when mixed with oranges, olives and thinly sliced onion for a more Mediterranean flavor profile.
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