'Fennel fall' is coming. Here's how a chef says to elevate autumn meals with the flavorful vegetable.
The jarringly early arrival of pumpkin spice-flavored everything means one thing and one thing only: Our palates are doomed. (Just kidding ... kind of.) The arrival of pumpkin spice in lattes, muffins and beyond means fall is just around the corner. And while I may be a pumpkin spice aficionado (I did write the cookbook Basic Bitchen, after all), there are plenty of other seasonal veggies — like fennel — that deserve the limelight during what is, arguably, the best time of year.
A cold-weather flavor that never gets enough fanfare, fennel is a flowering bulb with hollow stems that imparts a wonderful anise-like quality into any dish without overpowering it. It also comes with a bevy of proven health benefits said to ward off the inevitable flu or cold.
Top Chef alum Chris Cosentino, chef at Acacia House by Chris Cosentino, says any amateur cook can incorporate fennel into their weeknight meals.
What is fennel?
Hailing originally from the Mediterranean, the layered bulbous vegetable with edible seeds and flowers can be used as an ingredient in recipes or eaten on its own, raw or cooked, as a complement to more decadent spreads.
Though it may look like an onion, the fennel plant is actually part of the carrot family and comes in three varieties: common (entirely edible with flowers that are crushed to create fennel pollen), sweet (used primarily as an herb) and bulb (otherwise known as Florence or finocchio, which we treat and eat like a vegetable).
What does fennel taste like?
Fennel boasts an anise-like licorice flavor that can become very sweet upon cooking.
"I find it is similar to tarragon but not as intense," Cosentino tells Yahoo Life. "The bulb [also] has a sweeter flavor, while the fennel fronds have a brighter, more grassy flavor."
"Fennel's seeds are intense and impart anise flavor when toasted," he adds. "Wild fennel pollen is the most fragrant and unique [of the preparations]."
What are fennel’s health benefits?
Those suffering from gastrointestinal issues may find relief in fennel, which is said to reduce inflammation of the intestines and decrease the bacteria that causes gassiness.
Additionally, fennel is rich in iron, calcium and vitamins A and C, which are scientifically proven to aid in bone strength and beefing up one's immune system. The nutritious vegetable is also low in carbs with zero sugar, making it a healthy addition to your daily food pyramid.
How to shop for fennel
Look for vibrant-looking green fronds on long branches. Wilted leaves are a sign that the crop is on its way to rotting. Its bulbs should also be white, bright and unbruised.
Late-winter to early spring is when the plant flourishes, but you can find the freshest of fennel during any month when the weather is cool.
"There are also two types of bulbs," Cosentino reveals. "Narrow bulbs are male and the rounder bulbs are female. I prefer the rounder bulbs for roasting and cooking while the thinner bulbs are better for shaving."
How to cook fennel
"You'd be hard-pressed to find a flavor that fennel doesn't work well with," says Cosentino. "It cuts through the fat and richness of heavy dishes, but then also works well with lighter more delicate preparations like fish."
Of course, you can always just roast and caramelize the sliced bulbs in an oven to serve as a simple side, but Cosentino recommends that any fennel first-timer shave the bulbs raw and add to a slaw or salad. This will allow for you to sample it in its purest form.
When it comes to fall-forward inspiration, Cosentino plans to harvest fennel himself and weave it into the dishes served at his restaurant. Wild fennel pollen will season fish and can be served with a fennel, apple, aged cheddar and tarragon salad. He also hopes to debut a savory fennel tarte Tatin pastry, to which he plans to add tête de moine cheese.
No matter how you swing — err, slice — it, fennel is a wonderful vegetable to have on hand as the temperatures dip and the comfort foods come out in full force. It's a perfect light accompaniment to fall favorites like stews, pot roasts and chilis that are heavy on flavor and density. It's also an ingredient where you can use practically all of its parts, so consider it an earth-friendly investment in both your health and elevated cuisine.
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