Fennel is often grown as a herb, for its feathery leaves and seeds, and is used in salads, soups, fish dishes and teas. The seeds are often chewed after a meal to help the digestion – particularly in India. There are several different sorts of fennel and some species of fennel produce a crunchy white ‘bulb’ from the swollen stem bases of the leaves. They have an aniseed-like flavour and are also good for the digestion. The most important thing is to make sure you buy the right kind of fennel if you want the bulbs: you need to get ‘Bulbing Fennel’ – also called Florence fennel or finocchio.
They are a cool weather, short-lived perennial plant generally grown as an annual. They are apparently best when they mature in cooler weather. I planted mine in late autumn which should have been perfect but the plants just sat there for several months not really doing anything at all. Being in Auckland, they certainly weren’t short of water. But come late September they suddenly started to grow.
Harvest the bulbs when they are about tennis ball size (they get fibrous and bitter as they get bigger). Cut off at the base of the bulb and trim the stems back to a couple of centimetres above the bulb. The stems can be cooked as a vegetable as well – or used as a garnish.
It wasn’t quite salad season so I decided to try cooking my first harvest: Braised Fennel
- Cut the bulbs in half and brown them in oil for about 5 minutes, then add garlic and fresh oregano (as well as some baby carrots) and cook for a further 2 minutes.
- Then add a cup of vegetable stock and simmer until it reduces by about half.
- I served them sprinkled with Hazelnut Cumin Dukkah and garnished with fennel leaves. Delicious!
For my second (and sadly final for this year) harvest I made a Fennel, Apple and Walnut Salad:
- thinly slice fennel bulb and apple (skin on); carrot as well if you like
- make a dressing of 2 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp lemon juice, 1 tsp balsamic vinegar, a pinch of salt and 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
- top with walnut pieces and garnish with fennel leaves