Fennel, also known as anise, is the key ingredient that is used in absinthe (another thing I tried and nearly spit out because in my excitement that it was finally legal in the US I forgot it was supposed to taste like licorice!). It is used predominantly in Mediterranean Italy for its refreshing taste and is available to use either in its natural form, dried fennel seeds, or fennel pollen. In Indian households, dried fennel seeds are commonly eaten almost like an after-dinner mint to freshen the breath.
Then, while I was flipping through cookbooks, magazines, online food sites, etc for my Thanksgiving feast I came upon the perfect turkey recipe that included fennel as one of the ingredients. Usually, I would have left it out but I was curious. I figured that since it was really used for the base of my gravy that I wouldn't be able to really get an intense licorice taste. So I threw it in. Who knew? I took the turkey out of the oven and popped a piece of the caramelized fennel into my mouth. A-MAZING. Caramelly, and nutty, the licorice flavor had concentrated during cooking and become more sweet than bitter which is how I usually associate licorice. Roasted fennel has become a regular addition to my meals since then.
During the last Fourth of July, I added raw fennels to my vegetable roster. I was a bit nervous at first since only the bulb is edible and I thought it might be too tough. But sliced thinly, it is crunchy and fresh. It is the perfect dish during spring or summer when it is a little warm outside and you don't want something that sits heavy in your stomach or makes you feel bloated.
For my Easter dinner, I decided that I needed something lighter especially since the rest of my menu was so decadent. I had opened with my Asian deviled eggs and yesterday I shared my glazed rack of lamb, so I wanted a dish in-between that was more of a palate cleanser. When you add the oranges, the citrus sweetness just brings it all together and adds a great play to the texture of the salad. For this particular salad, I used Tarocco oranges from Italy that I purchased at Trader Joe's. A family of the blood orange, the Tarocco oranges are characterized for their sweetness and its beautiful orange-red coloring. I felt that the sweetness of the oranges really enhanced the sweetness of the fennel. The acidity from the oranges and limes also acts an agent to soften and "cook" the fennel.
It's even better because there is zero cooking involved. Let that oven rest! If you haven't tried fennel yet because you have no idea how to use it, I hope this simple recipe will get you to try it.
1 fennel bulb, stalks and fronds cut off, reserve fronds for garnish
4 Tarocco oranges (any kind is fine!)
2 limes or 1 juicy lime
1/8 cup good quality extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Thinly slice the bulb of the fennel using either a knife or mandoline. I like using my santoku knife for this. Put into a medium size mixing bowl.
3. Halve the remaining two oranges and over a sieve, squeeze all the juice into a small mixing bowl. The sieve will catch any seeds.
4. Halve the limes and add its juice to the orange juice.
5. Add oil, salt and pepper. Whisk together. Do not feel shy to dip your finger in to the dressing to taste if it needs more seasoning or acidity. A perfectly seasoned salad is everything.
7. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours so that the flavors fully set-in. It can easily be made the night before and will taste even better the next day. I would not make it more than a day ahead of time though since the fennel can become soggy.
8. Garnish with tiny pieces of the fennel frond.