A Good Year for Fennel

Fennel growing '17

The fennel in the kitchen garden has been especially good this year, large, rounded bulbs that never bolted, tender and sweetly anise-flavored. Perhaps our consistently cool late spring and cool early summer contributed to these perfectly formed bulbs. In a February 2015 column on growing fennel, writer and gardener Barbara Damrosch explains that fluctuations in temperature with spells of either very cold or very warm weather could cause fennel to skip the bulb phase and shoot up a seed stalk, leaving a flat fan where a bulb should be. In the same article, Damrosch also adds that: “unwanted bolting is triggered by a protracted cold spell outside after germination in a warm place inside.” Maybe I was lucky with weather in late May when I transplanted fennel starts I’d planted inside in early April.

Or another reason for these beautiful bulbs might be the varieties I planted this year, Preludio from Johnny’s and Mantovano from Adaptive Seeds, both recommended by Damrosch who explained that they were bred not to bolt. Or maybe it was a combination of weather and variety, with a little good luck as well. Whatever the reasons, we’ve been enjoying fennel since early July and I’ve just started more fennel seeds indoors in hopes of as good a fall crop.

Fennel:fronds on table

This year the mandoline has been my go-to tool for preparing the kitchen garden’s early summer fennel crop. Its very sharp blade slices whole bulbs into 1/8-inch slices in seconds and the thin slices of raw fennel make a delicious salad dressed with lemon, salt and olive oil. Fennel mandoline

Fennel salad '17Parsley and black olives are tasty additions as are lightly steamed sugar snap peas. I’ve also added thinly sliced raw fennel to radicchio salads and to grain salads of red quinoa, emmer farro or einka farro. The touch of crispy fennel flavor enhances all these dishes.

Looking for more ways to prepare fennel but still play with the mandoline, I turned to Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Vegetables (1996) and discovered her recipe for caramelized fennel (page 155). Sautéed in hot olive oil, crisp, thin slices of fennel soften and caramelize at the edges and their licorice flavor mellows to a deeper sweetness. They are delicious hot from the pan or at room temperature.

Fennel saute

Caramelized Fennel

2 large fennel bulbs

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper

 Trim stalks from fennel bulbs, and remove any tough outer bulb layers.  Cut really large bulbs in half vertically or leave smaller bulbs whole, then cut into 1/8 inch thick slices. Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat and add the olive oil.  When oil is hot, add the sliced fennel.  (If necessary, cook the fennel in two batches; the fennel should brown, not steam.) Cook, tossing occasionally, for 8-10 minutes until the fennel is caramelized and tender.  Season with salt and pepper.  Drain any excess oil and serve.  (This holds well and can easily be reheated; no additional oil is necessary.)

This technique was a great discovery but it did pose a dilemma: which way to serve fennel, raw or sautéed? Both are so delicious. We’ve settled on alternating or, even better, simply serving both, tossed together into a salad or side by side.

Fennel 2 ways

6 thoughts on “A Good Year for Fennel

  1. Yum yum!! And what are those delicious beans you’re serving alongside?? So pretty on the plate with the sautéed greens and ecru/umber of the fennel. I’m always hungry after reading your blog but grabbing a handful of pretzels just doesn’t satisfy – I want some caramelized fennel!!

    • So good to hear from you! This caramelized fennel recipe is a real find. How have I missed it all these years??
      Those are cranberry beans, these frozen from last year, are always good and sweet. Last minute protein next to the polenta and sautéed chard.
      So much to eat, so little time!

  2. Debbie,
    The fennel is delicious, thank you. I’ve just started cooking and growing it in the past few years. This year after two years of something destroying my tomatoes , looks like a bumper crop, along with so much basil. I wonder if you have any fun twists on Pesto. Mine is pretty standard, NYT recipe but we love it. I usually add some lemon too.
    Hope you and Scott are having a wonderful summer!

    • Great to hear from you! I’m glad you like the fennel recipes.

      I envy you your basil crop! For some reason, mine is terrible the year. Mostly some bug is eating it and it’s simply not thriving. I’ve started more and hope to get a fall crop.

      I don’t have any exciting recipes for basil pesto. I agree with you that the classic recipe is so good it’s hard to want variations. I do, though, find that I like arugula pesto and kale pesto almost more than basil pesto so I make them often, especially in winter. Good thing, since my basil pesto isn’t happening this summer!

  3. Pingback: Colors of the Summer Kitchen Garden | Lopez Island Kitchen Gardens

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s