Fennel Follies

Roasted Fennel Tomato Sauce … and how NOT to chop fennel

You may recall from our trip to the farmers’ market that Bill and I picked out fennel as our “mystery ingredient.” My challenge was try to cook something with this new-to-me vegetable.

Prior to preparing this recipe, I had definitely heard of fennel and was vaguely aware of its various uses in gourmet cooking as a result of watching highly educational cooking shows such as Chopped and The Next Iron Chef. However, I had certainly never cooked with fennel before. In preparing this post, I gained some knowledge that probably would have been useful before attempting to chop the fennel. But more about that later. Let’s begin with some fun fennel facts I culled from the Internet.

  • Fennel is a plant species recognized by its yellow flowers and feathery leaves, or fronds.
  • Florence fennel is a variety of fennel with a swollen, bulbous stem base that is treated as a vegetable and can be eaten raw or cooked. (See the fennel anatomy diagram below.)
  • In addition to its bulb, several parts of the fennel plant are used in cooking, including the fronds (used as an edible garnish or herb), the seeds (used as a spice), and even the pollen (sometimes used in fine cuisine to impart a very potent flavor).
  • The fennel plant contains anethole, which is a volatile compound largely responsible for the characteristic sweet, licorice-like flavor of fennel and anise, a related plant. This flavor is particularly strong in raw fennel, but it mellows when the fennel is cooked.
  • As it is native to Europe and the Mediterranean, fennel is common in Mediterranean/Italian cuisine. Even if you’re not aware of having eaten fennel, you may recognize it in Italian sausage, which is flavored with fennel seeds. Fennel seeds are also used as a spice in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking.
  • Fennel is in season during the autumn through early spring. In salads, it is often paired with seasonal fruits like apples and oranges.
  • Fennel comes from the same family as the highly poisonous plant hemlock. Although they look similar, the way to tell them apart is that fennel smells strongly of licorice and is edible, whereas hemlock smells nasty and kills you.

I had wanted to use the fennel for multiple recipes to showcase its versatility. But then I became busy writing a grant, and the fennel languished in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for over a week. Finally, I settled on a recipe involving roasted fennel because it seemed easy, and it called for two fennel bulbs, which was exactly what I had. So, what, you ask, made my first experience with fennel such an adventure? The troubles began when the recipe instructed me to “chop and core the fennel.” Unfortunately, I found my Food Network culinary education grossly inadequate in preparing me to chop fennel. Here is how NOT to chop a fennel bulb:

As you can see, I chopped the bulb into slices only to find an amusing assortment of shapes in varying shades from white to green. Perplexed, I began searching in earnest for the part of the bulb that was the “fennel” to put in the roasting pan. As the recipe directed me to core and chop the fennel, I deduced that the solid white circles were the “core,” so I discarded them. I figured that the the light green concentric rings with a ribbed texture similar to celery had a good chance of being the “fennel” due to their sheer abundance, so I laboriously chopped each strip into half-inch squares. I also came across hairy green things that looked more like fronds, but they were inside the bulb, so I threw them into the pan for good measure – just in case they were the actual “fennel.” Here is my chopped fennel(?) in the baking dish:

Due to my insufficient preparation, I was skeptical that the recipe would be any good. If you plan to make this recipe, I would highly recommend watching this YouTube video before attempting to chop, slice, or dice fennel. He makes it look so easy! Interestingly, although fennel is related to celery, you treat the bulb more like an onion for chopping and slicing.

Roasted Fennel Tomato Sauce
(adapted from seriouseats.com)

Ingredients

  • 2 fennel bulbs, cored and sliced (I would strongly recommend watching this YouTube video if you haven’t chopped fennel before.)
  • 2 large onions, peeled and sliced
  • 8 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 1/4-1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes (optional but recommended)
  • 2 tablespoons whole fennel seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan (optional)
  • 1 pound pasta

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Roast the fennel, onion, garlic, oil, chili flakes, fennel seeds, salt, and pepper in a baking dish for 15 minutes. Stir once or twice during roasting.
  2. Add the whole tomatoes (including their juice) to the roasted fennel/onion/garlic mixture and stir them in, breaking them apart with a spoon. Return the mixture to the oven, and roast for an additional 15-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the fennel has softened and is starting to brown. (Note: The original recipe said to roast for only 5-10 additional minutes with the tomatoes, but my fennel took longer than that to soften.)
  3. While the sauce finishes in the oven, cook the pasta in a large pot until al dente and drain. Reserve some cooking water
  4. Pour the sauce onto the pasta and stir to coat the pasta with sauce.
  5. Serve with shredded Parmesan cheese.

Edibility Evaluation

Despite the fennel follies and my skepticism that the recipe would turn out, Bill and I actually enjoyed it. I made the sauce in advance, and we had it with pasta for several nights. Bill had some extra hamburgers and Italian sausage he had grilled, so we crumbled hamburger in the first batch and made the second batch with sausage. The licorice flavor was noticeable but not overwhelming, and it gave the sauce a fresh taste and smell. The red pepper flakes were a nice addition, giving the dish some interest without being too hot. Bill said he would eat the sauce again and gave it an edibility score of 3.8. I agreed and gave it a 4.0.

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