Food & Drink

Fronds with benefits

Fennel on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
Fennel on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
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Fennel is the licorice-flavored vegetable for people who don’t like licorice.

It is also, obviously, for people who do.

Fennel can make a believer out of a licoricephobe because it is so mild. It’s not like washing down a box of Good & Plenty candy with a shot of sambuca, it’s gentle. Easy going. And most important, easy to mix with other flavors.

Fennel is also one of those ingredients that is great hot or cold. When it is heated, it acts as an aromatic, like onions and garlic, imparting its flavor to the dish as a whole. When it is served at room temperature, as in a salad, the flavor is crisper and more contained, though still mellow.

For my dalliance with fennel, I decided to make five dishes, most of them easy and relatively inexpensive.

I began with a pasta dish, Penne With Roasted Fennel and Onions. This was suggested to me by my friend and neighbor Andrea, who also sent me the recipe. Andrea is one of those people who always thought she hated fennel until she was served this dish by her step-mother-in-law. Now she is a believer.

You know how onions become sweeter and richer in flavor when you roast them for a long time? It is the same with fennel. And when you roast onions and fennel together, along with some garlic, you get an exquisitely mellow— but magnificently flavored —sauce for pasta.

Don’t forget to sprinkle it with parmesan cheese at the end. The crisp bite of salty cheese provides the perfect counterpoint to the warmth of the slow-cooked vegetables.

I next whipped out a quick hors d’oeuvre that is almost the exact opposite of the pasta dish — except it uses most of the same ingredients. In this version, the dish is cool, not hot; the fennel is fresh, not cooked; the flavors are sharp, not muddled; and it can be made in just five minutes.

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Sliced Fennel with Parmesan is a delightful little nibble that comes to us from Martha Stewart, who is always at her best with appetizers. It couldn’t be simpler: Slice a fennel bulb into thin wedges, drizzle with a few drops of olive oil (now is the time to use the good stuff), add thin slices of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and top with flaky salt, pepper and a piece of the fennel frond.

Even more than with the pasta, the cheese is vital in this dish. Parmesan and fennel turn out to go together like chicken and rosemary.

The next dish I made combines fennel with chicken and rosemary. And it was great.

Sauteed Chicken Breasts With Fennel and Rosemary takes advantage of the fact that fennel is a natural accompaniment to Mediterranean flavors. Put olive oil, garlic, rosemary and fennel on anything and you’ve got a satisfying, flavorful meal — especially if the anything you put it on is chicken or lamb.

For this dish, the fennel is cooked (with a lot of rosemary) until it is soft and sweet. Then the chicken is sauteed (with a lot of rosemary) until it is nearly cooked. Finally, the two parts of the dish — the fennel and the chicken — are brought back together in the same pan to make a wonderful meal.

Mediterranean flavors are also at the heart of my next dish, Broiled Striped Bass With Tomatoes and Fennel. With the right seasonings, fish goes even better with fennel than chicken or lamb.

The seasonings in this case are garlic, oregano, olive oil and lemon, with tomatoes and briny olives for an extra kick. Cooked together with a striped bass, it is a dish worthy of a warm summer night in Santorini.

But my local fishmonger did not have striped bass, so I had to make do with barramundi instead. The two fish are not particularly interchangeable, but they both have a relatively firm flesh and a mild taste. It turns out that that is all you need, because this entree was amazing. The fish took to fennel as it would to water, only the garlicky, lemony, salty sauce is far better than water could be.

For my last dish, I just added raw fennel to an old favorite, chicken salad with apples. The fennel adds just a little crunch and just a hint of flavor.

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The real standout in this dish, which is called Apple-Fennel Chicken Salad, is the lemon. A few squeezes of lemon make the whole salad taste bright, especially when some zest is thrown in for good measure.

To be honest, I didn’t like the zest at first; I thought it made the salad too bitter. But after I refrigerated it overnight, the zest had lost its edge and brought with it only a clean, lemon flavor.

Try it on whole-wheat toast. You won’t be sorry.

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PENNE WITH ROASTED FENNEL AND ONIONS

Yield: 4 servings

2 fennel bulbs, tall stalks and leaves discarded, bulb cut in half lengthwise and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch thick slices

2 medium yellow onions, peeled, cut in half and sliced 1/4-inch thick

1 large garlic clove, pressed or finely minced

1/2 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus extra for seasoning

1/2 pound dry penne

2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves

Freshly grated parmesan cheese

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

2. Combine fennel, onion, garlic and oil in large roasting pan. Season with salt to taste; toss the mixture to coat the fennel and onion with the oil. Spread the mixture in an even layer in the pan. Roast on the topmost rack in the oven, stirring occasionally, until the fennel and onions are just beginning to brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Be careful not to overcook; the fennel and onion will quickly go from brown to burned.

3. While vegetables are roasting, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the tablespoon of salt and the penne. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is tender but firm, al dente, 7 to 10 minutes. Drain. Transfer to a large preheated serving bowl. Add the roasted fennel and onion and the parsley; toss well. Serve with grated parmesan.

Per serving: 517 calories; 30 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 1 mg cholesterol; 10 g protein; 57 g carbohydrate; 9 g sugar; 7 g fiber; 930 mg sodium; 110 mg calcium

Recipe from “Pasta Verde,” by Judith Barrett

SLICED FENNEL WITH PARMESAN

Yield: About 12 servings

1 1/2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 bulb fennel, fronds reserved

Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon

Black pepper

Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling

1. Using a vegetable peeler or sharp chef’s knife, peel or cut the cheese into thick, bite-size shavings.

2. On a work surface, cut fennel in half lengthwise, then slice into 1/4-inch wedges.

3. Season fennel with salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Top with fennel fronds and cheese shavings.

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Per serving: 30 calories; 2 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 2 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 2 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 153 mg sodium; 53 mg calcium

Recipe from marthastewart.com

SAUTEED CHICKEN BREASTS WITH FENNEL AND ROSEMARY

Yield: 4 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 large fennel bulb, cut into 1/2-inch slices

2 teaspoons dried rosemary, divided

1/2 teaspoon salt, divided

1/2 cup chicken broth

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. In a large nonstick frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over moderately high heat. Add the fennel, 1 teaspoon of the rosemary and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the fennel is golden brown and almost done, about 12 minutes. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat and simmer until the fennel is tender, about 3 minutes. Remove the mixture from the pan.

2. Wipe out the pan and heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil over moderate heat. Season the chicken with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1/8 teaspoon of the pepper. Add the chicken to the pan with the remaining 1 teaspoon of rosemary and cook until brown, about 5 minutes. Turn and cook until almost done, about 3 minutes longer. Add the garlic; cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the fennel and its cooking liquid and the remaining 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Bring to a simmer. Cover the pan and remove from the heat. Let steam 5 minutes. Stir in the parsley.

3. Serve with soft polenta or mashed potatoes.

Per serving: 291 calories; 12 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 125 mg cholesterol; 40 g protein; 6 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 517 mg sodium; 60 mg calcium

Recipe from foodandwine.com

BROILED STRIPED BASS WITH TOMATOES AND FENNEL

Yield: 4 servings

1 1/2 pounds skinless striped bass fillet, or other firm-fleshed white fish

2 teaspoons grated garlic (from 2 to 3 large cloves)

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon, about 2 teaspoons

1 tablespoon lemon juice

3 tablespoon olive oil, divided

1 large bulb fennel, with stalks and fronds

1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes

1/2 cup brine-cured black olives, such as Kalamata

1. Preheat broiler with rack about 8 inches from heating element. Make diagonal slashes 1/4 inches deep at 2-inch intervals across flesh side of fish. Stir together garlic, oregano, lemon zest and juice, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper and 2 tablespoons of the oil; spread on both sides of fish, rubbing into slashes. Cut fennel stalks from bulb; reserve 1/4 cup of picked fronds. Place stalks lengthwise on a rimmed baking sheet. Top with fish, slashed side up.

2. Cut fennel bulb in half lengthwise; remove and discard core. Thinly slice bulb lengthwise and toss with tomatoes, olives, remaining 1 tablespoon oil and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; spread evenly around fish. Broil until fish is just cooked and opaque throughout and vegetables are charred in places, 8 to 10 minutes. (If they begin to blacken, tent with foil). Divide fish and vegetables among 4 plates, garnish with fennel fronds.

Per serving: 279 calories; 18 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 94 mg cholesterol; 22 g protein; 9 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 365 mg sodium; 64 mg calcium

Recipe from MarthaStewart.com

APPLE-FENNEL CHICKEN SALAD

Yield: 4 servings

1/2 apple, finely chopped

1/2 fennel bulb, finely chopped

1/2 small shallot, finely chopped

8 ounces poached, roasted or rotisserie chicken, torn into bite-size pieces

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon

2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more if needed

Kosher salt

Black pepper

Using a fork, mix apple, fennel, shallot, chicken, mayonnaise, chives, tarragon, lemon zest and juice in a medium bowl until well combined. Season with salt, pepper and more lemon juice, if desired.

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Per serving: 188 calories; 12 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 47 mg cholesterol; 15 g protein; 6 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 395 mg sodium; 33 mg calcium

Adapted from bonappetit.com

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