‘F’ Is for ‘Fennel’

It may look like celery, taste like licorice and sound like "Pinocchio," but the best thing about fennel is that it's not like anything else. Just one whiff will verify this. Because I have a passion for finocchio as the Italians call it, I use it frequently, especially in winter months when the vegetable pickings are slim at best.

You can imagine my delight to find a wonderful article titled "How Aromatic Fennel Escaped the Culinary Ghetto" (Daily Forward, Jan. 28, 2000) by Matthew Goodman, in which he says that "fennel is highly prized in the Mediterranean countries, especially in Italy, but this was not always the case. For centuries, it was neglected and disdained as a 'Jewish food.'

"Having been brought to Italy by Jewish traders from the Middle East, this pale green, crisp vegetable for centuries was eaten only by the Jews. It, like eggplant, was a ghetto vegetable and remained that way until the middle of the 19th century when it made its way into wider Italian society."

He goes on to say that fennel dishes did not survive the Atlantic crossings during the periods of immigration to the United States, and that Americans — Jewish and otherwise — never really became enamored of its distinctive taste. Even Italian restaurants seem to have a hard time keeping it on their menus.

This is truly a pity since it's high in protein, low in fat and can be prepared as a slowly cooked gratin, raw in salads, as part of a stew and everything in between. And as if those virtues were not enough, fennel — sometimes called the "fish herb" — has the effect of breaking down fats and aiding digestion.

In fact, it could become the next best thing to chicken soup!


Fennel-Carrot Bisque


3 Tbsps. oil or butter
1 bunch green onions, chopped
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
2 Tbsps. fennel seed
1 small potato, diced
4 cups vegetable broth
1/4 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper
fennel fronds

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan.

Sauté the onions, fennel, carrots and fennel seed about 5 minutes. Stir in potato and vegetable broth and bring to a boil.

Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, then purée in a food processor with cream.

Reheat gently, and taste for salt and pepper.

Garnish with sprig of fennel fronds.

Serves 6.


Fish Stew With Fennel


3 Tbsps. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 fennel bulbs trimmed and sliced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp. red-pepper flakes
1 can (28 oz.) tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 tsp. thyme
1/2 cup white wine or vermouth
1 cup fish stock or water
2 lbs. assorted white fleshed fish, such as halibut, sea bass or snapper
salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a large saucepan.

Add the garlic, onion and fennel, and cook, covered, for 15 minutes, or until vegetables are soft.

Stir in the parsley, lemon zest, pepper, tomatoes, thyme and vermouth. Bring to a boil and cook about 5 minutes over high heat until the sauce becomes thick.

Add the fish stock, bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes.

Stir in fish.

Cook on low heat 5 minutes.

Taste for salt and pepper.

Serves 6.


Fennel, Chicken and Niçoise Olive Salad


1 large fennel bulb, trimmed, quartered and thinly sliced
3 cups diced cooked kosher chicken
1 cup Niçoise olives, pitted
1/2 cup chopped chives
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. Dijon-style mustard
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 small head radicchio, separated into lettuce cups

Combine the fennel, chicken, olives and chives in a medium-sized mixing bowl.

To make the dressing, combine the mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar and lemon juice.

Toss with fennel mixture.

Serve in radicchio lettuce-leave cups.

Serves 4 to 6.

Fennel Confit


This is delicious as a side dish for grilled fish or chicken.

3 bulbs fennel
1/4 cup olive oil
fresh thyme
salt and pepper

Cut the fennel horizontally into 8 pieces. Place the wedges, olive oil, thyme, and salt and pepper on aluminum foil, and make a bundle.

Place on a sheet pan and cook for 45 minutes at 450°.

When the fennel is fork-tender, open the aluminum bundles and let it brown until golden.

Louise Fiszer is a California cooking teacher and food writer. Among the six books she's co-authored is Jewish Holiday Feasts.



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