Beautiful bulbs: growing and cooking fennel and scallions: invite fennel's refreshing anise flavor and scallions' allium zing to your summer table.
Fennel, once considered a gourmet vegetable and used only in certain Mediterranean dishes, has earned a place in contemporary cookery. You can now find fennel bulbs in markets and spot them in home gardens. Fennel's distinctive flavor is a bit like that of anise, licorice and tarragon, and it comes from compounds they all share.
Botanically, fennel is kin to celery, dill, carrots, and other members of the Apiaceae (or Umbelliferae) family--plantss that bear umbrella-shaped flower clusters. In fact, one form of fennel, grown as an herb for its leaves, flowers and seeds, is much like dill, with fern-like fronds. Sometimes called "wild fennel," it's tall and grows like a weed in areas--notably California--that have Mediterranean climates. Its flowers are a terrific nectar source for beneficial insects.
The other kind of fennel--which also has ferny tops, only shorter--is known as Florence fennel, bulb fennel, cultivated fennel or sweet fennel. It has a white, swollen area near the ground, made up of widened stem bases wrapped tightly around each other in overlapping layers.
Grow and Harvest Fennel
Fennel is often characterized as a fall vegetable, but a hard frost will take it down much earlier than hardier fall crops, such as carrots and kale. At our Maine farm, were not content with such a short season, so we treat ourselves to an early summer one as well. You can do the same by setting out transplants as soon as there is no longer danger of frost. Start seeds indoors two to four weeks before your average last frost date.
If planted in spring, sometimes an unexpected cold snap will make fennel bolt (go to seed) before it's had a chance to form bulbs. This happens because biennial fennel interprets the cold snap as its first winter and the subsequent onset of summer weather as its second spring. The best way to avoid this is to plant a bolt-resistant variety, such as 'Zefa Fino' or 'Montovano.' (Find sources for both varieties at www.MotherEarthNews. com/Custom-Seed-Search.--MOTHER) Fertile soil and regular watering will also encourage a good crop.
Harvest anytime after the fennel bulbs start to form, and enjoy them from 2-inch-wide babies to 5-inchwide giants. The bulbs will turn woody if left in the ground too long. Fennel bulbs will require some trimming in the kitchen, and the outer layer should be removed if it is tough or has brown spots. You may chop off and discard the hollow stems, though I often save a few in the fridge to flavor stocks. The ferns are useful to snip as herbs or as garnish for platters.
Fennel's uses are endless. Slice it and add it to scalloped potatoes or make a gratin with it. Include it in stocks, soups and stews--especially fish stews, such as bouillabaisse. Cooking fennel mellows it, so if you want to restore some of its anise intensity, try adding fennel seeds or anise-flavored liqueurs and spirits, such as Pernod, ouzo, anisette or sambuca.
Bulb fennel can be sliced, chopped or shredded, and then eaten raw in salads or slaws. Individual segments, which are joined by a core at the bottom, can be pulled off and nibbled as crudites, used as scoops for a dip, and even served as a slightly sweet palate cleanser and breath freshener to chew on after a heavy meal. Thomas Jefferson, who grew fennel at Monticello, considered fennel a dessert. Try it topped with goat cheese, drizzled with a little honey.
The bulb's hard little base could be removed before shredding, but is often useful for holding the layers together, as when it's sliced thickly top to bottom and then grilled. A brief poaching before grilling will tenderize it. Braising makes the bulb meltingly tender, revealing an almost artichokelike flavor.
Store fennel in a fridge or root cellar for several weeks, but any longer and it will start to brown. For longer storage, blanch and freeze some for winter use.
Stuff a chicken with the fronds, or moisten them and lay them under fish, meats or vegetables on the grill. You can even strew fennel fronds over the coals to flavor the smoke.
Success with Scallions
Scallions are also a crop with more than one season, so learning how to grow scallions is especially useful. You might plant some for harvesting in early summer and fall, and even winter and spring in mild climates. I like 'Evergreen Hardy White' for its winter hardiness, and 'Nabechan,' a good-tasting Japanese variety that has worked well for us. At our farm in Maine, we can have them by June 1 in a minimally heated greenhouse.
We sow them as multi-plants--that is, a cluster of seeds dropped into a soil block or plug--and then set the plugs 8 inches apart on all sides as transplants. This makes weed prevention easier, because we can scuffle a hoe between the well-spaced clumps, and then harvest each cluster as a nice, tidy bunch.
I prefer scallions that aren't much more than two months old because the foliage gets coarse as time goes on. But even old plants can be useful in an onion emergency. When I've used up the storage onions, the summer ones have yet to come, and there's no time to go shopping, I find I can have almost a perpetual supply of scallions if I'm willing to stretch my definition of what a scallion is. I can rob an onion bed of young shoots if they're more or less scallion-sized, and use them the way I would scallion tops. Chopped and sprinkled over any savory dish, they do just what scallions do--brighten its color and flavor. This thinning might even improve the spacing in the onion row. Thinnings from a garlic or shallot row can also play a scallion's role.
Need more delicate ones? Use some overgrown chives. Finally, in late winter, when the onions in the storeroom start going soft and sending out long green stems, those stems can impersonate scallions as well.
As for the real scallions, you can use them raw for sprinkling or dipping, but don't neglect them as a cooked vegetable. They don't need long cooking, are surprising and deeply flavored when roasted or grilled, and of course are a natural in stir-fries and sautes. Scallions make the perfect companion to fennel in the recipe for Braised Fennel at right. Scallions can be frozen, too, but with these wider definitions for scallions up my sleeve, I've never felt the need.
Fennel Antipasto Walk into some wonderful old Italian restaurant and you might be greeted by a table of antipasti--the plural of antipasto, which means "before the meal"--complete with sliced meats, cheeses, fish perhaps, and, my favorite, vegetables in olive oil. It's hard not to make a meal of them alone. Florence fennel, either raw or cooked, makes a great antipasto. In this recipe, it's thinly sliced and sauteed to caramelize its natural sugars. This gentle browning emphasizes the beautiful layered structure of the bulb. Yield: 4 to 6 servings. 4 fennel bulbs, 3 to 4 Inches across 1/4 cup olive oil 2 cloves garlic 1 tsp fennel seeds (optional) Coarse sea salt Freshly ground black pepper 1 small bunch of fennel fronds (for garnish) Scrub and trim the fennel bulbs, leaving enough of the bases to keep the slices intact. Stand the bulbs up and slice them lengthwise to make fan-shaped pieces no more than 1/4-inch thick. Heat the olive oil and garlic in a medium-sized skillet until fragrant. Add the fennel slices carefully in a single layer, with none touching. Over low to medium heat, saute them for about 5 minutes or until they're golden-brown, moving them around in the pan so they color evenly. This will require your full attention. Flip them and brown the other side. Remove carefully with a spatula and drain on paper towels, leaving the garlic behind. Pound the fennel seeds, if using, with a mallet on a cutting board, then toast over low heat in a small, dry skillet, just long enough to release their flavor. Arrange the fennel slices on a warm plate and scatter the seeds, salt and pepper over them. Garnish with the tips of the fennel fronds. Serve warm or at room temperature. Fennel Salad with Oranges Raw fennel and oranges are a traditional pairing. I like Cara Cara oranges, a low-acid, sweet-tasting navel type with a vivid hot-pink interior. Yield: 4 servings. 3 fennel bulbs, 3 to 3 1/2 Inches across 6 small scallions 3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese Coarse sea salt Freshly ground black pepper 1/2 cup olive oil 3 tbsp sherry vinegar 1 tbsp orange juice 2 Cara Cara oranges 4 small handfuls of arugula Scrub and trim the fennel bulbs, quarter them lengthwise, and cut out the cores. Holding the segments together at the top, shred them using a mandoline or grater. You can also use a food processor with a shredding attachment. Trim the scallions, removing the roots and any wilted foliage. Cut both white and green parts into 1/4-inch segments, and then reserve 1/3 cup of the green tops. Combine the fennel, cheese, remaining scallions, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Whisk together the olive oil, vinegar and orange juice in a second bowl. Add half the dressing to the fennel mixture and stir. Peel the oranges, picking off as much white pith as you can without tearing the fruit. Slice thinly, horizontally. To assemble the salad, place a handful of arugula on each of 4 salad plates. Mound the dressed fennel in the center of each. Arrange 3 orange slices on the side of each plate, making a cut in each circle from the outside to the center so you have a necklace instead of a ring. Overlap one end over the other to give the slice a little height. Drizzle the remaining dressing over the arugula and the oranges, and sprinkle the reserved scallion tops over all. Serve immediately. Braised Fennel Cooked slowly in liquid, fennel's anise flavor becomes muted, its texture is tenderized, and it takes on the earthiness of braised artichoke hearts. Cooking the bulbs with scallions adds a bit of pungency, and raisins steeped in sambuca, an anise-flavored liqueur, give back a bit of that licorice flavor, along with some sweetness. Yield: 4 servings. 4 fennel bulbs, about 3 1/2 Inches across 3 tbsp olive oil 1 cup chicken broth 1/2 cup dry vermouth or white wine 2 cloves garlic, pressed or grated Dash of salt 3 bay leaves 14 cup raisins 3 tbsp sambuca 12 small scallions, roots trimmed off Freshly ground black pepper Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Trim the fennel bulbs and cut each in half lengthwise. In a shallow ovenproof casserole on the stove over medium heat, brown the fennel in the olive oil with the bulbous side down, flipping each one after the center has darkened, and paying close attention so they don't burn, about 10 minutes. Flip over and brown the flat sides evenly, about 10 minutes longer. Pour the chicken broth into a small saucepan and taste for saltiness. Add the vermouth and garlic and bring to a boil. Pour over the fennel, adding just a dash of salt if needed. Tuck the bay leaves among the fennel slices. Cover the casserole and put in the oven for 30 minutes. While the fennel is cooking, combine the raisins with the sambuca and 2 tablespoons of water. Simmer on low heat for a few minutes, removing from heat when about 2 tablespoons of liquid remain in the pan. Set aside to steep. Stir and add a little more water if the raisins clump together. Cut the scallions at the branching point and set the tops aside. Chop the white parts in lengths about 1V2 inches long. Chop the greens in 1/4-inch segments. When the fennel is tender, add the white parts of the scallions, re-cover, cook 10 minutes more, and then remove from oven. (The scallions will give off some liquid, so if the dish is too soupy, pour the juices into a saucepan, reduce until thickened, and then pour back in.) Stir in the raisins, distributing them well. Grind pepper generously over the dish and sprinkle it with 2 tablespoons of the chopped scallion tops, reserving the rest for another purpose. Serve immediately.
Garden writer Barbara Damrosch grows fennel, scallions and much more with her husband, Eliot Coleman, at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. Find even more seasonal, simple recipes in her latest book, The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook (available on Page 64).
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|Title Annotation:||The Gardener's Table|
|Publication:||Mother Earth News|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2015|
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