Fennel is a member of the broad carrot family, native to the Mediterranean. It is a striking garden plant, with a plump bulbous body and tall stems, ending in a mass of feathery green fronds. All parts of the plant have a distinctive anise flavour, adding a pleasantly mild liquorice note to any dish. The bulbs are the part most commonly eaten as a vegetable. They resemble a pot-bellied celery, with a cluster of broad stalks tightly packed together. Baby fennel bulbs are especially tender and versatile, and may be cooked by almost any method.
Trim the fronds and woody stems from the fennel. Dry the fronds for use as an herb, if desired. Cut small bulbs in half, or larger ones into quarters. Parboil in a small saucepan, if desired, then drain. Brush the fennel pieces with olive oil, and place on a preheated grill. Cook until well-browned and tender, then serve as a side dish.
Trim and cut the fennel bulbs as directed above. Gently preheat a heavy skillet. Add a generous portion of butter, and place the fennel in the pan with cut sides facing down. Cook gently at low temperature, turning occasionally, until the fennel is tender (about 35 to 45 minutes, depending on size). Season lightly with salt and fresh-ground pepper, and serve.
Trim and cut the fennel bulbs as directed above. Simmer the bulbs in a small saucepan for five to eight minutes, depending on size. Place the fennel in a buttered casserole dish, or individual gratin dishes. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and cover with shredded Havarti, Monterey Jack, Gouda, Fontina or other mild cheese with nutty overtones. Bake until the cheese is melted and the fennel is tender.
Trim and cut the fennel bulbs as directed above, or leave small fennel whole. Place the bulbs in a casserole or baking dish just large enough to hold them in a single layer. Add chicken or vegetable broth until the bulbs are about 2/3 covered. Dot the uncovered portions with butter, season lightly with salt and pepper, and braise covered in a slow oven until the fennel is tender. The cooking liquid may be reduced and concentrated for a sauce.
Trim and cut the fennel bulbs as directed above. Place them in a saucepan, and cover with five parts water and one part olive oil. Add lemon juice, roughly 1/2 as much as the olive oil. Add thyme,bay leaves, coriander seed, cracked black pepper and chopped celery. Simmer the fennel until tender, and allow it to cool in the marinade. Drain and serve cold as an hors d'oeuvre. If desired, prepare a large quantity and can the fennel for later use or refrigerate for up to a week. This is a traditional preparation called fennel "a la greque," or "in the Greek style."
Trim two to four baby fennel as described above. Cut crosswise into fine slices, and place in salad bowl. Peel and dice the two apples, and add to the bowl. Add most of the toasted walnuts, retaining a few for garnish. Toss the salad with enough vanilla yoghurt to coat the fennel. Garnish with the remaining walnuts, and some chopped fennel fronds. Serve individual portions on single leaves of Bibb or Boston lettuce, for an attractive presentation.
Fennel stems are woody, but have the same flavour as the bulb. Peel the stems to remove the fibrous threads, and simmer them until they are tender for use as a side vegetable. Fennel fronds are often used as a fresh or dried herb, to lend a subtle anise flavour to salads and soups. Fennel seeds have a similar flavour to the plant, and are used as a spice in many dishes. They may also be chewed as a natural breath freshener.