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Gjelina Group Goes to the Market: Fennel
Breaking down fennel from the ground up.
This Week at the Market
Written by Sam Rogers, Gjelina Group’s Farm Liaison
Every once in a while you need to revisit a classic with the new perspective your older, wiser self provides. This week I'm going back to fennel. Fennel and I didn’t always see eye to bulb. I never understood why people liked this weird-looking vegetable that tasted like a “lite” version of the dreaded black licorice. All that changed one day when Chef Courtney Storer made me a simple fennel salad with apple, lemon and dates — that made me rethink everything. Others may be misunderstanding fennel too, trying it on its own, thinking the bulbs to be introverts. But fennel is an extrovert, it is at its best with a few friends! Every part of fennel is edible, from the bulb to the flowers, and it can be eaten raw or cooked, so let’s break it down from the ground up.
The fennel roots are tough and tuberous. They are not widely used since farmers usually cut them off before they hit the farmstand. However, the roots can be rinsed, diced and used to thicken and flavor soups. Just don’t eat them raw, it would be unpleasant.
The bulb, with its densely interwoven fleshy leaves, is the culinary heart of the plant. When raw, it has a crisp texture similar to celery and a fresh anise flavor. When cooked it becomes very sweet, having enough sugar to actually caramelize in the hands of a skilled cook. Early season fennel bulbs tend to have a sweeter flavor.
Though technically edible, the stalk itself is super fibrous and is commonly used to flavor broths, like vegetable or cioppino. Not the most exciting part — but everything is important!
Alice Waters describes them best, “Fennel fronds grow out of the stalks and look like beautiful, frilly, thread-like dill. They are a delicate garnish and are also used as a fresh herb in salads and other dishes.” How surprisingly usable! The feathery leaves can be picked and sprinkled over a finished dish for garnish and a hint of anise flavor.
As the weather warms and the bulbs begin to harden, they lose their tenderness, and the fennel begins to “bolt” — the farmers’ term for creating flowers and hastily going to seed. Yet a fennel flower is a yellow umbrella of beauty and taste. The flowers are so beautiful that we use them in arrangements at the flower shop for a color pop.
At the tip of these yellow umbrellas is a light yellow dusting — pollen. When the flowers are harvested and dried, you can easily extract the fennel pollen by light agitation. Pound for pound it’s something of a delicacy, and it’s a secret ingredient of many chefs — especially Chef Juan. To harvest your own pollen, cut the flower heads when they are brilliant yellow, then dry them in paper lunch bags and knock the heads to loosen the pollen.
If left to complete their life cycle, the flowers will produce seeds. These are the same “anise seeds” that you’d find in a jar at the grocery store or taste in fresh Italian sausage and cured salumi. To collect your own seed, collect dried flower heads. Put the heads in paper bags and crumble the seeds loose from the flower buds. Store both the seeds and pollen in tightly sealed jars in a dark, cool place.
Fennel is technically a perennial, though it is more commonly grown as an annual, planted for harvest during cool weather. Hot and dry climates, or lengthening of sunlight hours at the onset of summer, will cause the vegetable to bolt (see above). You’ll notice it flowering along roadsides all over California where, though it feels natural and wild to us, it is actually an invasive species, having come from the Mediterranean originally. This “wild fennel” has a rich perfume in its flowers, which are laden with more pollen than cultivated fennel. However, they barely produce an edible bulb.
Fennel is so much more than a vegetable version of nasty grandma anise candy. So don’t shun the fennel!