There is something inexplicably alluring about fennel. Maybe it's the fragrant, feathery stalks of wild fennel that perfume the air in early spring, the cool, silky taste of a liqueur flavored with fennel seed, or the licorice crunch of raw fennel in a salad. Whatever it is, fennel has got serious sex appeal.
Fennel was first brought to California by Europeans over 200 years ago. The biennial plant thrived in our Mediterranean climate and today grows prolifically throughout coastal California.
The tall, tasseled fronds are often found along roadsides and hiking trails, or in vacant lots, making it easy for fennel fans to pull up fresh, crunchy bulbs, and collect the pungent seeds and lacy yellow flowers bursting with pollen.
Fennel is sometimes mislabeled as anise (not to be confused with star anise, an Asian spice), which is a plant from the parsley family. Florence fennel, also known as finocchio, is the common hybrid variety we find at farmers' markets and grocery stores. It's cultivated here and in Mediterranean countries, and has a large, rounded, juicy, white bulb with a more mellow taste than common fennel and a sweeter, more delicate taste than anise.
Florence fennel is primarily used for its bulb-like base, although the tender inner fronds are also edible. Florentine fennel is not used for seeds, as are common and wild fennel.
Although wild fennel differs from its cultivated cousin in that the bulb is smaller, flatter and sharper tasting, ``Hybridized fennel isn't that far removed from wild, unlike some crops, which are vastly different from their wild counterparts,'' says Peter Martinelli of Bolinas' Fresh Run Farm.
Martinelli plants his fennel in late summer. By November, the plants have reached a height of 30 to 40 inches (wild fennel can attain heights up to 6 feet) and the bulbs are large enough to harvest.
Although fennel grows year-round in our temperate climate, Martinelli prefers to grow it as a winter crop. ``It's very hardy and relatively pest-free, although gophers like it. The nice thing is it can tolerate weather shifts, so it's a lower maintenance crop.''
Martinelli says that fennel is fairly easy for the home gardener to grow. ``You need to keep weeds away until the bulb is large enough to hold its own. It's generally best to start seedlings in a container, then transplant.''
I used to work in an organic foods co-op, and every week our produce manager would come in with a small bag of fennel seeds he had collected on the way to work. Inhaling the intoxicating scent of those sackfuls of seed were what launched my love affair with fennel.
The time to collect seeds, says Martinelli, are right after the flowers have ``thrown out,'' and the plant is ready to reproduce. The seeds have long been used by natives of the Mediterranean and Middle East as a digestive, or to freshen the breath. You'll see this practice at Indian restaurants, which often have a dish of candied fennel seeds in lieu of mints. Fennel seeds will also add a burst of flavor to baked goods, salads or sausage filling.
Fennel blossoms add a haunting, licorice note to vinaigrettes, salads, soups, stews or sauces. Try mixing them into softened butter to put atop grilled fish or poultry. The blossoms should be finely chopped or crushed in a mortar, although I sometimes use a few whole blossoms as garnish.
The pollen, which should be used very sparingly, can be dusted lightly over fish or used in desserts. If you don't want to collect your own, you can find it sold in tiny jars in specialty food shops, where it is imported from Italy.
When foraging wild fennel for seeds, flowers and pollen, common logic prevails - don't collect from the roadside or other locations where the plants may have been exposed to contaminants.
The delicate, inner leaves of fennel can be used in a manner similar to the blossoms. Finely chop and mix with extra virgin olive oil and a little lemon juice, then toss with vegetables, potatoes, fish or poultry, or add to gratins, soups or vinaigrettes.
The larger fronds don't have many practical applications, but you can use them to make a wonderfully scented bed for whole, grilled fish (avoid using very woody or pithy stalks - they should still be fairly tender), or as an aromatic basting brush for grilled vegetables, fish or meat.
Fennel is generally sold with the stalks trimmed down, but the remaining leaves should still be green and fresh looking. The bulb should be heavy for its size, firm, juicy and white, although some browning or bruising is inevitable. Avoid yellowed, stringy, or flattish bulbs, which will have poor flavor.
Fennel bulbs are delicious when used raw in salads, particularly when paired with a sweet component such as apple, blood orange, grapefruit or shellfish. Fennel also lends itself well to braising, grilling or caramelizing.
To prepare a fennel bulb, peel away any tough outer layers, then trim the root end, making sure to leave the base intact. Trim the stem end and discard. Halve the bulb, rinse any grit from between the layers, then lay the cut surface face down, and thinly slice. Fennel will oxidize with air contact, so if you are not planning to use immediately, place the slices in water mixed with a little lemon juice.
- Fresh Run Farm fennel can be found in dishes right now at Chez Panisse and Cafe Rouge in Berkeley, and Insalata's in San Anselmo. Riverdog Farm sells fennel at the Berkeley farmers' market, and Terra Firma Farm sells fennel a the Berkeley and Marin farmers' markets
PETITE AIOLI (AHI TUNA, POTATO AND VEGETABLE SALAD)
Recipe from Restaurant Sent Sovi in Saratoga, published in ``Cooking Fresh From the Bay Area'' (Eating Fresh Guides, $17.95).
Juice of 1 lemon
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Aioli (recipe follows)
1 red pepper, roasted peeled and cut into strips
1 pound Ahi tuna, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 pound green beans, blanched and chilled
6 small potatoes, boiled, chilled and sliced thin
1 bulb fennel, blanched or braised and cut into strips
4 eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and sliced thin
Make a simple vinaigrette by whisking together the lemon juice, about 1/3 cup of the olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
Marinate the pepper strips in 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt and pepper (or use canned roasted red pepper strips). Set aside.
Season the tuna cubes with salt and pepper. Heat a medium-sized skillet or saute pan over high heat and sear the tuna on all sides, taking care to leave the center rare or as desired. Set aside.
Toss the green beans with the vinaigrette and place a small mound in the center of a serving plate. Arrange the potatoes, fennel, egg and peppers around and on the beans. Slice the tuna as thinly as possible and arrange on the plate.
Drizzle with aioli at the last moment. Serve at room temperature.
6 to 10 peeled garlic cloves
1 tablespoon cold water
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 egg yolks
2 cups olive oil
Combine garlic, water, lemon juice and salt in a food processor. Process until smooth. Add egg yolks and continue to process until yolks become frothy and much lighter in color. With the machine running, pour the olive oil through the feeder tube in a thin steady stream until all of the oil is incorporated, and aioli thickens. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for 3 days.
E-mail Laurel Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org