What's in Season at the Farmers Markets: Winter Fennel
Summertime is to warm basil and heirloom tomatoes as wintertime is to fennel and oranges. But there's so much more. If you find young and slender fennel bulbs, braise them whole. If you have larger, bulbous (and slightly tougher) bulbs, slice up and carmelize like an onion. Rest pork or chicken on the tops while roasting - they're as aromatic as celery or parsley. Chop into a gremolata. Make fennel soup. Use as a breath freshener ("chew on the fronds like a cow," said one vendor). Once options are exhausted, then sidle up to a dish of shaved fennel and orange slices, lightly laced with a fruity vinegar and brightened with a little salt.
Fennel was once considered a "minor crop" in California, a designation that might confuse a local. Residents out by Pacific Palisades, and even on Catalina Island, have been harvesting wild fennel, or finocchietto, growing on the hillsides there for over a decade. Our Mediterranean climate suits it perfectly, especially this time of year and local market tables are piled high with fat and skinny bulbs alike. Cultivated fennel is a tad different from its wilder cousin though and is used mostly for its amply fleshed bulb. Wild fennel is usually harvested for its coveted pollen, or later in the season for its highly aromatic seeds. It's a sweet, snappish, licorice-scented member of the parsley family, and as such, all of it is usable in some form or another.
When shopping for fennel at the local markets, aim for smaller, more tender bulbs that feel heavy for their size. The bulb layers should be compact and firm, uncracked and unsoggy. Soft spots should be avoided. The tall frilly stalks should be rigid and crisp and the fronds should smell decidedly of anise when pinched.