In season from mid-fall to early spring, fennel is a versatile root vegetable that complements almost any produce — citrusy lemons, onions, apricots, carrots. With just a hint of sweetness and licorice flavor, fennel is popular in salads, but the bulb is also great in soups or roasted with meat. The seeds of the fennel are also adaptable, as they're found in many spice mixes that go into Chinese and Indian cuisines. Try one of these recipes to see how many ways the root veggie can be used.
Carlynn Crosby, Times correspondent
Fontina, Fennel and Onion Pizza
Heat a grill or grill pan to medium-high. (If you have neither of these, a cast iron skillet on high heat or a sheet pan in an oven set to 500 degrees will work.) In a separate pan, heat 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil. Add 1 trimmed, cored and thinly sliced fennel bulb and 1 halved and thinly sliced large yellow onion. Stirring occasionally, cook over high heat until browned, adding coarse salt and pepper to taste. When the mixture browns, after about 5 minutes, reduce heat to medium, cover pan and cook for another 5 to 7 minutes. Next, add a tablespoon of water and, stirring constantly, cook for another 2 minutes. Pull off of the heat to cool. On a floured surface, roll out 4 ounces store-bought pizza dough into a 10-inch oval. Brush one side with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place the dough on your grill or other heat source, oiled side down. Brush top with oil and cook until underside forms a char, about 1 to 2 minutes. Flip and repeat this step for uncooked side. Remove from heat and top with ½ cup caramelized onion and fennel mixture, 4 ounces shredded fontina cheese and fennel fronds. Place back on heat source and cook for 2 to 5 minutes until cheese melts and toppings are heated. Recipe adapted from marthastewart.com.
Potatoes au Gratin With Fennel and Bacon
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Thinly slice 2 pounds Yukon potatoes, trim and dice 1 large fennel bulb, and chop 7 basil leaves, keeping ingredients separate. In a large skillet, fry 1 pound sliced bacon until brown. After draining on paper towels, chop or crumble the bacon and set aside. In a separate saucepan over medium heat, melt 5 tablespoons butter and whisk in 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour until smooth and just beginning to bubble. This is what's called a roux. Gradually whisk in 3 ½ cups whole milk and stir constantly to ensure no lumps. Cook for about 5 minutes or until thickened, seasoning with ½ teaspoon ground white pepper, salt and black pepper to taste and 1 pinch ground nutmeg. Remove from heat and, adding a handful at a time, stir in 2 ½ cups grated cheddar cheese, continuing to stir until smooth. Set aside to cool. Using a third of the potato slices, layer the bottom of a greased 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Top with a third each of the fennel, bacon, basil and cheese sauce. Repeat this layering twice more. Cover the dish with a lid or aluminum foil and bake for 1 ½ hours. After an hour, remove cover so that the top can brown and cook for another 30 minutes. Recipe adapted from allrecipes.com.
Chickpea and Fennel Ratatouille
Heat oven to 425 degrees. In a large roasting pan, combine the following: 1 pound peeled and chunked eggplant, ¾ pound zucchini cut into large chunks, 1 pound cored and chopped Roma tomatoes, 1 sliced onion, 2 cored, seeded and sliced red or yellow bell peppers, 1 trimmed and chunked fennel bulb, 5 halved garlic cloves and 1 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle ingredients with ¼ cup olive oil, tossing to combine, and stick in the oven to roast for 30 to 40 minutes. Stir occasionally, cooking until vegetables are lightly browned and tender. Remove pan from oven and add 3 cups cooked chickpeas (drained if from a can), then stir and return to oven for 5 to 10 minutes. When done cooking, add 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme or rosemary, ½ cup chopped fresh basil or parsley, and stir. Taste, adjust seasoning if needed, and serve hot or warm. Recipe adapted from the New York Times.
Fennel and Grapefruit Salad
In a bowl, combine 1 peeled and sectioned grapefruit (along with any juice), ½ thinly sliced red onion, 1 bulb trimmed and thinly sliced fennel and 1 (15-ounce) can hearts of palm, drained and sliced. Toss until coated with grapefruit juice. Pour into a separate bowl, leaving some of the juice in the first bowl for a vinaigrette. With the juice, whisk together ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, ¼ cup red wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon garlic powder and salt and pepper to taste. Tear 4 cups romaine lettuce and toss with the dressing. Divide onto four plates, then evenly distribute grapefruit and fennel mixture onto each plate. Top with ¼ cup Gorgonzola cheese equally distributed across each serving and slices of avocado. Recipe adapted from allrecipes.com.
Cream of Fennel Soup
To make this soup, you'll start by creating a spice mixture. Heat 1 teaspoon coriander, 2 crushed cardamom pods, 2 whole star anise and 1 whole clove over medium-high heat in an 8-quart saucepan. Cook for about 2 to 3 minutes, or until the seeds start to pop. Transfer the spices to a piece of cheesecloth and tie into a tight package, then set aside. Add ¼ cup canola oil to the pan and return to medium-high heat. Next, add 4 large, trimmed and roughly chopped fennel bulbs, 1 large leek, also trimmed and roughly chopped, and 1 large roughly chopped yellow onion. Cook the vegetables for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they're golden. Then, pour 1 cup dry white wine into the pan, cooking for 3 to 4 minutes or until reduced by half. Add spice package (in cheesecloth) and 6 cups vegetable or chicken stock and boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes until vegetables are tender. Toss out spice package and puree soup, in batches, in a blender until smooth. Return soup to saucepan and add ¼ cup Pernod liqueur (this is optional), ½ cup heavy cream and salt and white pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until soup becomes until slightly thick. Serve with crusty bread. Recipe adapted from saveur.com.