In Amanda Hesser'sThe Cook and the Gardener ( which I liked more than her second book about Mr. Latte, probably due to my advanced age) she discussed the merits of fennel. She noted that this splendid vegetable is a bargain package, because you get both the vegetable (bulb) and the herb (fronds). I have been greatly enjoying the fennel I am getting in my farmboxes of late. I have never yet had more fennel than I could easily use up. In the winter, I buy it as often as carrots, at the grocery store, because I use it in so many ways.
I have been through a certain checker's grocery line with fennel so often that she can now identify what she considered an obscure oddity. The store's electronic coding system identifies this vegetable as "Anise". To the amusement of my fellow shoppers, when my checker pal says, "Oh yeah, this is that anise you always get," she pronounces "anise" with a long "a". I have tried telling her that she might want to call it "fennel", but to no avail. She does not wish to be rescued.
Luckily, these days I am mostly relying on the farmbox fennel. When I say that I use this vegetable in many places instead of celery, you may think that all my food must taste like licorice; I promise it does not. It all started because I don't really care for celery when it is raw or crisp-cooked in a stir fry. I like the taste of celery very much, and enjoy it braised, appreciating celery seed, celery root, and some celery leaves in a bouquet garni. I think it is the stringy texture of the raw stalk that I find objectionable. Fennel has all the crunchy merits of celery, without this drawback. Well..... you could argue that the fennel stalks are horrid, and good only for compost. This is not entirely true, as you can use them to flavor a broth before throwing them out. But they are not the part you eat; you eat the bulb, which easily wins the celery/fennel contest, in my view.
I used to substitute red or green peppers for celery in potato salad and egg salad for crunch, and that was good, but not quite sufficient . I think raw fennel hits a perfect note in these dishes, and I like cooked fennel instead of celery in soups and pasta sauces. As long as fennel is simmered for a while, the flavor is very subtle, yet freshening, and I think it is especially great in any combination with onions, garlic and tomato.
And if you want to stress the flavor of the fennel- say in a pork roast, where it is particularly apt, you can use fennel seed in a marinade or brine, cook some fennel with carrots in the pan, and garnish your plate with chopped fronds when you serve it. This trio works well with a tomato based meat sauce, too. There, you would of course toast the fennel just before you saute your pot vegs, at the start.
It is nice sometimes, to bring the fennel to the foreground. The classic way of doing this is to oven braise it in some stock, slowly, with a bit of garlic and olive oil, and some good parmesan, grated on top. This is delicious and mellow. In the summer though, it is especially nice raw, shaved with curls of parmesan and lemon juice and pepper, or in this slaw, a variation on a recipe by Alfred Portale:
1 cabbage, thinly sliced (not grated)
1 fennel bulb, trimmed down to bulb only, and thinly sliced or shaved with mandoline (save a handful of fronds)
1 carrot, peeled and julienned (or grated, if you are in a hurry)
1/2 tsp of fennel seeds, toasted and ground or mashed in a mortar and pestle
1 tsp creole or other whole grain mustard, or dijon
1/2 cup mayo
2 tsps rice wine vinegar
finely chopped scallion
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Mix together everything down to, and including, the vinegar. Sprinkle everything else on top and toss lightly. Chill or serve right away. The sea salt makes a big difference in taste, but. of course, it is okay to use regular salt if you don't have some. I am very partial to Penzey's french grey sea salt. My friend Ilene gave me a cute little container with a lid and spoon, as part of a birthday present. I keep sea salt on my table in it.