Most of us have undergone a detox (of sorts) since January 1. But between the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day and The Year of the Snake and every other holiday-centric excuse we find for feasting, our food choices expand right along with our waistlines. Though February is nothing like the sugar-fest of December, most have us have now settled into a more realistic approach to healthy living. A few carbs here; a few fats there—all manage to keep us sated and sassy.
Through thick and thin, the farmers’ market remains the portal to healthy living. Along with juicy citrus fruits, apples, pears and other sweet reminders of winter, this month — with early crops like sugar snap peas and strawberries — offers a sneak-peak of what’s in store. And as we wait for spring to get into full swing, it’s the perfect opportunity to explore less common vegetables at the market.
Unless you grew up in an Italian household, chances are your mom never served fennel. And if you still haven’t tried it as an adult, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. If you’ve been scared off by descriptions that compare its taste to licorice, read on.
Florence fennel — also called finocchioor bulb fennel — has a delicate, sweet flavor vaguely reminiscent of anise. (In fact, supermarkets often mislabel it as such—though anise has a far more pronounced licorice flavor.) Fennel is sweet and mild in its natural state; and even more so when cooked. If you’ve been on the fence, now is the time to take the plunge: its prime growing season in California is October through April, when we are likely to find the most tender “baby fennel.”
In addition to its delicate flavor, there are a couple more selling points: Fennel’s texture is crisp when raw, yet meltingly tender when cooked. And these odd-looking veggies are completely edible: the bulb itself, the celery-like stalks that rise from the bulb, and the feathery green fronds on top.
- 2 medium-size fennel bulbs, rinsed and trimmed
- 1/2 cup chicken stock or reduced-sodium broth
- 2 1/2 tablespoons California extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Asiago or Parmesan cheese
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Refrigerate or freeze the fennel stalks for another use, and reserve a few fennel fronds for garnish. Cut each fennel bulb in half lengthwise; then cut each half into 2 or 3 wedges. Arrange the wedges, cut-side up, in a 9-inch-square or other shallow 2-quart baking dish.
- Gently pour the stock over the fennel wedges; then drizzle with the oil. Season with salt and pepper. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and sprinkle evenly with the cheese. Continue baking, uncovered, until cheese is lightly browned and the fennel is tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife, 30 to 40 minutes. Serve warm, or let cool to room temperature. Just before serving, finely chop the reserved fennel fronds and scatter over the top. Serves 4.
Getting Familiar with Fennel
- The seeds used to flavor Italian sausage — as well as many other foods — come from a very different, bulb-less variety known simply as Common fennel.
- Look for firm, pale bulbs of Florence fennel with a pearly sheen and no blemishes. The dill-like green fronds on top should appear bright and fresh.
- Refrigerate whole, unwashed fennel in a plastic bag. Stalks and fronds are best used within a couple of days. (Or freeze the stalks to add Mediterranean flair to future soups and stews.) Fennel bulbs remain fresh in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
- To prepare fennel, rinse with cold water and pat dry. Cut off the green fronds and use as you would any fresh herb — as a garnish or flavor enhancer. Cut off the celery-like stalks, peel with a vegetable peeler, and add to dishes as you would celery. Using a small, sharp knife, trim the base of the bulb, removing any browned or tough spots. To slice, use a chef’s knife to cut the bulb in half lengthwise; then crosswise into strips. (Use a mandoline or V-slicer for paper-thin strips.) Alternatively, cut the bulb halves lengthwise into halves or quarters.
- If fennel becomes limp, refresh it in ice water for about 30 minutes.
- Add thin slices of raw fennel to salads; or include small wedges on a crudité platter.
- 1 cup of raw sliced fennel is less than 30 calories. It is a significant source of vitamin C, with 3 grams of fiber and 6 grams of carbohydrate.
The Danville Certified Farmers’ Market, located at Railroad and Prospect, is open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. For specific crop information call the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association at 1-800-949-FARM or visit their web site at www.pcfma.com.This market is made possible through the generous support of the Town of Danville. Please show your appreciation by patronizing the many fine shops and restaurants located in downtown Danville. Buy fresh. Buy local. Live well.