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.
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.
Parsley 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.
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.