Without a doubt one of my favorite vegetables is fennel; so versatile, so delicious, and so easy to use. Fennel will withstand a lot of punishment before it gives up the fight. I am not suggesting that you beat it up, obviously, what I am saying is that the novice cook can push a little to hard and still have wonderful results.
I recently got the opportunity to eat fresh baby fennel (straight out of the dirt) on a farm that is run by another chef friend of mine here in Charleston. The flavor was not like anything I ever imagined. It was crisp and light, not the over powering anise flavor I would have assumed it to have in its infantile form. The aftertaste though was the most exciting, medicinally clean is the only way for me to describe it. For those of you who have eaten ajwain seed (also known as carom seeds or bishop’s weed) then you know exactly the feeling I am trying to describe. It had a pleasant almost numbing tingle, in the mouth, with a taste and feeling of cleanliness and freshness. Honestly it makes me not want to eat fennel any other way. And the baby fennel in my garden may honestly be in trouble. Below is my single row of fennel in this year’s crop.
For the regular fennel I have a new favorite way to prepare them. Simply cut in length wise. Remove all the fronds and branches (do not throw these away; they make great flavor powders when dehydrated and ground). In a hot pan with some oil and butter, sear the cut side of the fennel until lightly golden. Add enough stock (I use chicken but vegetable would work as well) to cover the bottom of the pan about ¾ to 1 inch deep (at least half covering the fennel). Add a pinch of saffron strands (be careful to not put in to much) and, depending on the amount being cooked, some fresh scraped vanilla bean, about ½ a bean per two whole fennel bulbs. You could also use previously scraped pods, but would want to increase the amount used. Bring the liquid back to the boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Allow the fennel to cook until it is just barely fork tender. This should only take roughly 15 minutes or less even. Carefully remove the fennel from the hot liquid and drain on a kitchen towel. The liquid can then be reduced for a wonderful sauce or frozen and saved for the next batch of fennel. The cooked fennel itself can be eaten as is, or for even more fun cut the bulbs into ½ inch thick sections crosswise, lie out on a sheet pan, and allow to cool completely. They should then be wrapped tightly until ready to use. When ready to use heat a pan over medium high heat with a mix of oil and butter, lightly dust the fennel in corn start, then carefully put the fennel into the hot pan (dusted side down). Cook until heated through and crisp on the dusted side.
As for baby fennel like I ate out of the ground, do nothing….. No in all seriousness, do as little as needed. Baby fennel is tender already so it does not need the heat of cooking to rid it of tougher fibers as the older bulbs would. It also has such a great flavor you would not want to mess with it to much. I now prefer mine with mussels. I shave it thin and add it to the bowl of champagne steamed mussels just before I eat it. This allows just enough heat to get to the flesh and let the flavors bloom.