Edible Monterey Bay

WHAT’S IN SEASON: FENNEL

An overabundance of an unusual
crop leads to love in the kitchen

wisFennel

Photography by Patrick Tregenza

I first learned about fennel—a subtly licorice-flavored, sweet, juicy white bulb with feathery, dill-like fronds and tasty seeds, flowers and pollen—in 1997, during a road trip to the Mexican border with a college agriculture class.

I distinctly remember the farmer who was giving the tour being ultra-exuberant about the health benefits of fennel as he used his knife to cut open bulbs for us to try.

The flavor didn’t knock my socks off that day, and it wasn’t until I overplanted the crop last year that I finally found my appreciation for fennel. Something that tends to happen when a farmer ends up with too much of a certain crop is that they end up eating a LOT of it—or at least I do.

Being creative in the kitchen is my favorite pastime, so when the totes of leftover fennel came back from the markets where my farm was offering them, I got to work seeing what I could come up with to get through it all.

I discovered that fennel bulbs are awesome cored, trimmed and baked alongside a whole chicken. Adding a little water in the bottom to steam them slightly keeps the bulbs from drying out, as does drizzling olive oil on them. I like to do both.

Broth is amazing when made with fennel, and the vegetable actually holds up even after days of simmering. Cooking fennel mellows the licorice taste, and the texture becomes similar to a whole cooked onion, soft with layers of delicate, savory yet unique flavor.

Some other preparations I’ve tried and loved include fennel pickled; marinated in teriyaki; skewered and barbecued; chopped and sautéed with onions and served over fish; chopped into chunks and cooked with buttery risotto; and shaved raw on top of an arugula and Parmesan salad with a champagne vinaigrette.

My favorite way to enjoy fresh fennel is sliced thinly with cabbage and made into a coleslaw with fresh mango slices, Meyer lemon juice, mayonnaise, salt and pepper. But whether braised, stewed, grilled, sautéed or served raw in salads or on a crudité platter, this versatile and healthy vegetable deserves to become much more of a staple in your cooking repertoire.

HISTORY

Fennel belongs to the Umbelliferae family and is a close botanic relative of parsley, carrots, celery, dill and cilantro.

It was first cultivated in the 17th century, in Italy, where it is called finocchio. In 1824, the seeds were sent from an American consul in Florence, Italy, to Thomas Jefferson. But it wasn’t until the last few decades that fennel has become somewhat popular and widely available in the U.S. Still, the U.S. doesn’t even make the list of the top dozen countries that cultivate the crop.

In many countries, fennel is a favorite, such as in Spain, where the stems are used in a pickled eggplant dish called berenjenas de almagro. A popular salad in Israel is simply fennel sliced with parsley, lemon juice, olive oil, sumac, salt and pepper.

HEALTH BENEFITS

Juicing fennel is a great way to get your daily dose of vitamin C and boost the immune system while adding a refreshing taste to any juice base.

The anethole oil in fennel is known to reduce inflammation and have antifungal and antibacterial properties and may help prevent cancer. Wild fennel has been long used medicinally to treat stomach complaints as it is an antispasmotic and digestive.

The fennel bulb itself is a fabulous source of fiber, folic acid and potassium and has significant trace minerals such as copper, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc and selenium.

Of course, soil quality matters when it comes to the micronutrient uptake of the plant. Fennel needs to be grown in healthy, replenished soil containing abundant amounts of those minerals in the first place— yet another good reason to buy from farmers who follow good organic practices of rebuilding soil through cover cropping and crop rotation.

Fennel is also one of the three main components of absinthe, a high-alcohol spirit which was created initially as a medical elixir in 18th century Switzerland. The high potency of the spirit eventually led to international bans on its production and consumption, but in recent decades it has become a popular cocktail ingredient.

POLLEN AND SEEDS OF WILD FENNEL

While most fennel recipes will call for fennel bulbs, the plant offers much more to cook with.

There are flowers and pollen that can be harvested from wild fennel (usually referred to as anise and although in the same family, considered a different plant) and seeds, too. Wild anise grows abundantly in North America alongside roads and in open fields from the coast to inland, and as long as you can be sure that the wild fennel is not contaminated by herbicide sprays, you can collect the pollen and seeds yourself.

There is a sweet spot of time when the pollen is loose and can be harvested. Too early and the flowers will still be closed, too late and you will be harvesting the seeds.

Simply bend the flowering anise into a brown bag and shake it gently.

Once the anise has pollinated and the flower dies, it will set seed and you can then collect the seed heads to dry and use for various dishes.

Seeds can be smashed to release the compounds and used for tea to help calm an upset stomach and help digestion. The seeds can also be chewed whole to naturally freshen the breath.

Fennel seeds are used to season Italian sausages and in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking.

When using the seeds in savory dishes, the aromatics are best released by toasting the seeds in a pan on medium until brown. When using in sweet dishes like breads and cookies, it is best to use raw, as heating changes them from sweet to spicy.

Both fennel seeds and pollen are commonly used in chutneys, meat dishes and breads. Look for green fennel seeds when buying because that means they are fresh since they tend to lose color as they age. Purchasing pollen costs about $15 per ounce, so that is some motivation for foraging your own.

HOW TO GROW FENNEL

Fennel needs adequate water to produce bulbs with good flavor—a consideration if our fouryear drought returns after this winter’s rains.

But the benefit of growing your own fennel means being able to reap all parts of the fennel plant, fresh from your own back yard.

The three main seed varieties grown locally are Victorio, for planting into the spring, Zefa Fino, a tried and true old variety for planting in the spring or summer, and Orion, for planting in the fall.

It is best to plant fennel in the ground from transplants as the weeds can quickly overtake directly sown fennel seeds. Space plants 6 inches apart in rich soil with a slightly alkaline pH range of 6.5–7.5. Harvest 50 days for baby and 80 for full-size bulbs.

Letting the fennel go to flower will offer food to pollinators and other beneficial insects, as well as provide flowers, pollen and seeds for culinary projects in the kitchen. It is my hope as a fennel-growing farmer that you are inspired to try this amazing vegetable that other countries have been enjoying for many years. Or next time I end up with excess fennel, I will attempt to turn it into absinthe, which I am sure would sell better than the raw vegetable.

Jamie Collins is owner of Serendipity Farms and has been growing organic row crops at the mouth of Carmel Valley since 2001. She distributes her produce through a CSA, u-picks and farmers’ markets.

RECIPES

Braised Pork Belly and Sweet Potato Gratin with Fennel

LOCAL FOODS IN SEASON
MARCH, APRIL, MAY

Fruits: Apricots* • Avocados • Blackberries* • Cactus Pears* • Grapefruit** • Kumquats** • Lemons • Limes** • Mandarins** • Oranges • Pomelos** • Rhubarb** • Strawberries

Vegetables: Artichokes • Arugula • Asparagus • Beets • Bok Choy • Broccoli • Broccoli Raab • Brussels Sprouts • Burdock • Cabbage • Cardoons • Carrots • Cauliflower • Celeriac*** • Celery*** • Chard • Chicory • Collards • Cress • Dandelion • Endive • Fava Beans and Greens • Fennel • Garlic • Horseradish • Kale • Kohlrabi • Leeks • Mushrooms • Mustard Greens • Nettles • Onions • Orach • Parsnips • Peas** • Pea Shoots • Potatoes • Radishes • Rutabagas** • Shallots • Spinach • Sprouts • Squash • Sunchokes • Turnips

* May only ** March and April only ***April and May only

Fish: Abalone • Crab, Dungeness# • Grenadier, Pacific • Halibut, California • Lingcod, Pacific • Rock Cod, aka Snapper or Rockfish • Sablefish, aka Black Cod • Salmon, King • Sanddabs, Pacific • Seabass, White • Sole (Dover and Petrale) • Spot Prawns • Squid

All fish listed are rated “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and are found in abundance in local waters. See www.seafoodwatch.org for more information. #As of press time, a ban still applied to local Dungeness crab due to toxin levels related to the El Niño weather pattern, and it was unclear whether the moratorium would be lifted this spring.

Research assistance provided by Real Good Fish and Serendipity Farms.

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