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Fennel adds flavor to sausage, fresh fish and other veggies

One advantage of California’s cool, oceanside climate (have you ever shivered in July on the sands of Morro Bay?) is that fennel just loves cool fog. Those big, anise-flavored, crunchy bulbs that grow so well in the spring from Monterey to Santa Barbara counties are coming into our stores now.

The bulbous fennel we see in most markets is Florence fennel, or finocchio, as it’s called in Italy. This kind of fennel, grown in rich organic soil, develops a tender crunchiness that’s succulent, aromatic and refreshing.

Sometimes this vegetable is called anise due to its light anise-like aroma and flavor, but true anise is another plant altogether. I’ve seen it called “sweet fennel” at farmers markets, but here in Northern California, the name sweet fennel is usually reserved for the wild fennel that’s a familiar sight (and smell) along country roadsides.

The same wilding also is found in southern France and northern Italy, where its anise-scented and flavored, feathery fronds are used in soups and sauces and for stuffing fish, poultry and rabbits.

Italian immigrants may have brought it to California, where it escaped from cultivation many years ago. Or the wild fennel here may be Florence fennel that escaped and reverted to a stronger, wild, bulb-less form. In any event, it’s a ubiquitous weed now, used by cooks here much as it is in Europe — as a flavoring, especially for salmon and other seafood caught fresh from the Pacific.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to mankind so that people could emerge from their brutish state. He supposedly hid the flame in a fennel plant — a strange tale until you see wild fennel in the fall when it’s in its mature stage. Its stalks turn a range of beautiful warm colors: pink, cream, yellow, and salmon. It looks as if it might conceal fire somewhere deep within itself.

The bulb of Florence fennel isn’t an enlarged root but rather enlarged petioles — leaf stems where they attach to the crown. As such, they overlap and the outer petioles conveniently protect the inner ones when soil is mounded up around the swelling bulbs to blanch them in the garden or field. Its mild anise character is lessened by cooking, so some cooks increase that character by adding fennel seeds or pastis, as the French call their anise-flavored liqueurs like Pernod.

If you’re growing it in your garden, allow a few plants to head up and make seed — the seeds carry a sharp fennel flavor of an essential oil, anethole, that can be used in making bread, pastries, confections and sausage. Fennel’s distinctive aroma seems to discourage most insects, so even conventionally grown fennel is relatively free from agricultural chemicals.

Fennel is a member of the umbelliferae tribe — an aromatic group that includes dill, cumin, caraway, coriander, carrots, parsley, celery and angelica.

If you’re buying Florence fennel, try to find bulbs with as many of their feathery leaves still attached as you can. If you’re buying at a farmers market, ask your farmer to bring fennel with all the fronds attached next time, then plan to stuff your salmon or trout with the chopped fronds. Whiz the bulb in the blender with peeled and seeded cucumber and a bit of salt. When the fish is finished, serve it with the pureed fennel-cucumber sauce. If you have access to wild sweet fennel, parboil fronds for 30 seconds before stuffing the fish. This lessens their intensity, which can be too aggressive when used fresh.

Think Mediterranean: instead of a basil pesto, parboil fennel fronds quickly, then chop them finely. Squish a couple of cloves of garlic through your garlic press into the chopped fronds. Mash two anchovy filets in some olive oil and stir the mixture into the pesto. Mash a small handful of pine nuts (taste them at the store to make sure they taste sweet and lightly piney, not rancid) in a mortar and stir them in. Try this on pasta.

Besides fish, fennel’s flavor merges beautifully with lemon juice, cucumbers, Niçoise olives, bourbon and good Parmesan cheese. Buy a half pound of fresh sausage loose at the market, mix it with a heaping tablespoon of fennel seed and an ounce or two of bourbon and fry it in patties for a Sunday breakfast of eggs and sausage.

This delicious dish could hardly be simpler, although it does take about 40 minutes to make. It’s very Italian in style and flavor and goes well with grilled meats and a glass of Aglianico or fish with a glass of Fiano di Avellino.

Skillet-Roasted Fennel

Serves 3

1 large bulb of Florence fennel

4 tablespoons olive oil

Salt, to taste

Trim the stalks and any fronds from the top of the fennel bulb and remove the outer layer of thick leaf bases from the bulb.

Trim any roots off the bottom but don’t cut deeply into the base, which holds the leaves together.

Holding the bulb upright, cut it into ½-inch slices from the top to the base.

Place one tablespoon of olive oil in an iron skillet and heat it to medium. Arrange the slices in the skillet and reduce heat to low. Drizzle 3 tablespoons of olive oil over the slices, spreading the oil on the slices with the back of a spoon. Grind salt between your thumb and forefinger over the slices to give them a light salting. Cook for 20 minutes, then turn the slices and cook for another 20 minutes. They should be lightly browned on both sides. Serve hot.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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