One of the most underused ingredients, fennel is usually found in herbal teas and little else – maybe you’ll sprinkle some fennel seeds into your curries for an added kick of flavor. But you’d be surprised by the versatility of this crunchy green herb, as every single part of it is edible. With a crisp, celery-like texture when raw – or tender and sweet when fried or roasted – cooking with fennel is easy!
This member of the carrot family is a great way to load your meals with added vitamins and nutrients. Full of vitamin C, offering health benefits from faster skin regeneration to a stronger immune system, organic fennel also has plenty of calcium and potassium for greater bone strength and reduced risk of heart attacks.
So what can you do to get more fennel into your diet?
Use the stalks like celery
While the majority of recipes prioritize fennel’s large, onion-like bulb, there are still a number of ways to cook the long stalks. Fennel is an incredible, zero-waste product and the stalks come in handy as the base of vegetable stocks or added ingredients for homemade soup. With a strong and distinctive flavor, most closely likened to licorice, this ingredient will stand out in any recipe you use it for. After all, fennel is used in the manufacture of absinthe, which explains where that powerful drink gets its strong flavor from.
As mentioned, fennel stalks share similar qualities with celery sticks so you can serve them with hummus, alongside carrot sticks and other nibbles. A great flavour combination is avocado and cilantro hummus, as the mildness of the cilantro gently balances out fennel’s sharper kick.
Try adding thinly-sliced fennel stalks to a salad just as you’d use diced celery chunks, especially with crispy romaine lettuce, as the two textures compliment each other really well.
Use fennel instead of celery when making mirepoix
The French term for a combination of diced root vegetables – carrots, onions, and celery – which are simmered in butter or oil for a long time over a low heat, mirepoix is used primarily as a base for soups and stews. Think of it as a form of vegetable stock; and, like the stocks you buy from the store, mirepoix can be stored easily. Simply freeze the diced vegetables in a zip-lock bag, to use as and when required.
Besides the most important part of this take on a traditional dish – namely, substituting the celery for fennel – another thing to remember is the magic ratio of 2:1:1. Meaning, use twice as much onion as carrot and fennel, as the onion becomes very soft and contracts significantly when cooked.
Make sure to use your mirepoix within two months, however, to retain freshness – you’ll want to add it to any large servings of soup or stew that need to simmer for many hours, as the frozen vegetables can be a little bit soggy when they’re taken out of the freezer.
Add this homemade vegetable stock to butternut squash soup, goulash, spicy lentil soup, or any other dishes you want to liven up with some sautéed root vegetables.
What goes well with fennel?
Thanks to its various health benefits, as a good source of fiber and a way to keep your cholesterol levels down, fennel is a helpful ingredient for a more rounded diet. But given that it has such a strong flavor, you might be wondering what actually goes with fennel.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to incorporate fennel into your meal plan, thanks to the fact it can be boiled, braised, grilled, or added to soups and stews. Its feathery, dill-like leaves at the top of the stalks can be finely diced and thanks to their powerful anise-like taste, just a small amount is needed to sprinkle atop grilled or baked meat as a garnish.
A simple side dish for a hearty sandwich or salad can be made by sautéing the bulb or the stalk with some olive oil, a pinch of salt, and a few ground peppercorns. Or, if you want to make it a component of the salad itself, slice a fennel bulb and serve raw, just as you would do with celery.
Try quick-pickled fennel
One of the popular ways to serve fennel is by quick-pickling it as a side for a wide variety of barbeque dishes and grilled fish. It’ll keep for months in the fridge – perfect for summer dining – and is a quick and easy way to get more fennel onto your plate.
Firstly, dissolve 30g of sea salt in 1.2 liters of water in a large Kilner jar, and put 800g of finely sliced fennel in there to soak overnight. The following day, measure 500ml of cider vinegar into a pot and mix in a tablespoon of fennel seeds, a tablespoon of allspice berries, and a tablespoon of black pepper.
Boil this on a stovetop and then leave to simmer with a lid on for a quarter-hour. Stir in 50g of sugar, adding more if necessary to dilute the sharpness of the vinegar. Now take the fennel out of the jar and strain all the excess water. Clean the jar with scalding water so that the jar is left sterilized and still hot.
Put your sliced fennel into this jar and, when two-thirds full, fill the remaining volume of the jar with your spiced vinegar. Finally, pour in 50ml of rapeseed oil and then seal, leaving the contents to cool.
And there we have it! The zero-waste ingredient that can be used in a variety of dishes, and with plenty of health benefits, fennel is the alternative to celery you should know about. If you want to spice up your salads or make a flavorsome stock, see how much of a difference it makes to get some fennel on the menu.