Fennel is an underrated, underused vegetable that crunches like celery but tastes like licorice. (When I was a kid we called it "licorice celery," which makes total sense.) It used to be hard to find -- downright exotic -- but today it's widely available, though many people still don't know what to do with it. This is a shame, because fennel is at its best in the colder months and can add some much-needed brightness to wintertime meals.
Buying, Storing and Preparing Fennel
When you're buying fennel (sometimes called anise), look for smooth, white, densely packed bulbs. Once you get it home, store it loosely wrapped in plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to a week. To prepare fennel for cooking, cut off the feathery fronds (which you can save and use as an herb-like garnish if you like) and celery-like stalks (which you should discard). What's left is a white bulb with a hard, rough bottom. Cut off the bottom and slice the bulb vertically or horizontally, as you prefer; very large bulbs may need to be cut into halves or quarters before you slice them. When I want paper-thin slices fennel-which I often do, when I'm eating it raw -- I use a mandoline, though a sharp chef's knife will work.
How to Serve Fennel
I adore raw fennel and eat it dipped in salt- and pepper-seasoned olive oil or a simple vinaigrette. It's also a no-brainer for salads, and though you can toss it with olive oil and lemon juice and call it a day, I like to make things only slightly more complicated by combining it with celery and/or apples. The celery has a crisp, slightly coarse texture similar to the fennel's, but the flavor couldn't be more different or complementary. The apple adds mild sweetness, but a sprinkling of crumbled blue cheese keeps the salad from getting too sugary. (Freshly shaved Parmesan is nice, too.) When you're getting tired of rich, starchy vegetable dishes, this salad is a refreshing change of pace.
Don't give up on fennel if you find its raw flavor too anise-like. Cooked, fennel acquires a smooth, silky texture and a gently savory flavor. You can braise it until it's fork-tender, or roast or sauté it to develop a little brownness and enhance its sweetness.
Or, for an elegant but light main dish (or a side for pork or chicken), make a fennel gratin. First, parboil the fennel slices by dropping them into boiling salted water; they will be tender in just a few minutes. Make sure the fennel is well drained when you layer it in your gratin dish; if it leaches water it'll keep the gratin from browning. For the topping, mix a handful of bread crumbs (homemade, please; if you don't have any, put a couple of slices of stale bread in a food processor and pulse until you have pieces no bigger than a pea) with some chopped herbs-I use parsley and thyme, but you can substitute any other you like. Add a sprinkle of Parmesan, bake until bubbly, then broil to brown the top. It's fast, easy, and delicious-one of the nicest things I know how to do with fennel, really.