Fennel Is the Most Underappreciated Fall Vegetable—Here’s Why
Diversify your cold-weather cooking with a Mediterranean favorite.
When fall arrives and your choice of vegetables thins, consider fennel. This white, spade-shaped bulb with stalks like celery and fronds that resemble dill offers a lot. Unique flavor. Many parts. A long shelf life. Raw and cooked possibilities. For many reasons, fennel deserves more love—and a prime spot in your cold-season vegetable rotation.
Most of all, a flavor without close parallel in the plant world gives this carrot-related vegetable—which doubles as a digestive aid—a unique gastronomic footprint. Fennel has an earthy, herbaceous sweetness, sweet in the way that carrots can be sweet, but with its starchy sugars pulled in another direction by licorice notes.
You have many ways to harness the compelling flavor and charms of fennel. The simplest: enjoy the vegetable raw. To do this, cut fennel into thin fingers and leave them in a bowl for pre-meal snacking. Snacking on fennel is a healthy way to open the appetite. If you’re especially hungry, you seem to be able to relish the character of the sugars even more. It’s a great way to eat this season and delay your appetite for another 20 or 30 minutes before a meal begins.
The flavor of raw fennel excels in salads and slaws, especially those with citrus. Sliver an apple and a bulb of fennel into matchsticks, coat them with lemon juice and olive oil, finish with black pepper, and you’ll have a crisp, complex side dish. A few thin ribbons of fennel go a long way mixed into a hardier green salad. For added impact, scissor in some of the green frills from the top.
What else to do with the frills? One sure thing: don’t toss them. These aren’t a throwaway part of the plant, like onionskins. Rather, the dark green frills have a flavor that mutes fennel’s vegetal sweetness and licorice notes, while dialing up the leafy, forest-y flavor. Add frills to brine when making pickles. Save them to be blended into pesto or green goddess dressing.
Raw fennel is great, but the beauty of the vegetable comes through most when you reach for the oven. Simply put, cooked fennel has the capacity to evoke wonder. As quarter-inch slices roast on a baking sheet—each a cross-section of the whole bulb, each topped by nothing but olive oil and salt—one of the greatest smells in all of cooking fills the air. It saturates the kitchen (and beyond) with a wintry perfume, a calming scent that feels like an antidote for cold, leafless days, the kind of aroma that instantly and undoubtedly turns your kitchen the center of your home.
As fennel roasts (or grills), its sweet edge softens. It gains a meaty richness. Its texture develops a melting slide. One of the best ways to roast fennel is under chicken, alongside vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and parsnips. Cut fennel bulbs and stalks catch the chicken’s drippings and are further transformed.
Bulbs sliced and grilled elevate a sausage sandwich. Slivered and soaked in olive oil, fennel thrives as a topping to homemade pizza. Chopped and sizzled with the onion to start, the stalks or bulbs serve as a fragrant sofrito base for pasta.
A last thing to love about fennel is the seeds. They explode with flavor, not unlike caraway seeds. Toasted, they have a dusky and faintly licorice-tinged aroma that goes well with browned cuts of meat, like pork chops. Right out of the spice bottle, they add warm depths to salads and slaws, especially those that use another part of the fennel. The flavor of the seeds accents the best qualities of fennel: deep comfort, cool-weather warmth.