If ever there was a vegetable dogged by misunderstanding, fresh fennel is it.
Because while it may taste like anise and look like a bulb, it is neither. And don’t let the grocery workers who love to label it that way tell you otherwise.
While fennel is a relative of anise, they are separate plants. And while the base of fennel is bulbous, that’s a shape, not its plant variety. So now that we’ve cleared up what fennel isn’t, let’s focus on what it is.
Fresh fennel resembles a cross between cabbage, celery and dill. The taste is assertively (though not unpleasantly) licorice and sweet. The base of the fennel is round with tightly overlapping pale green leaves. Sprouting out of that are long celery-like stalks topped with fine frilly leaves.
Technically speaking, all parts of the plant are edible, but most people will find the stalks too tough and fibrous to eat. The leaves can be chopped and used to flavor salads, dressings, marinades and sauces. They tend to have a slightly more citrusy flavor than the base.
The base (or bulb) is delicious raw or cooked. The thick bottom and outer leaves usually are trimmed off, then the rest can be sliced or chopped.
Fennel is particularly popular in the cuisines of the Mediterranean, particularly Italy, where it has been grown since the 17th century.
Fennel Egg Salad Sandwich
To hard-boil eggs, place them in a medium saucepan and add enough cold water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to maintain a bare simmer, cover and cook for 14 minutes.
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Splash hot sauce
Zest of 1/2 a lemon
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Salt and ground black pepper
1 small red onion, finely diced
1/2 fennel bulb, trimmed and finely chopped
6 eggs, hard-boiled, cooled and peeled
Lettuce or other greens
6 slices sandwich bread, lightly buttered and toasted
Pinch smoked paprika
In a medium bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, mustard, hot sauce and lemon zest and juice. Taste, then season with salt and pepper.
Mix in the red onion and fennel. Coarsely chop the eggs, then gently stir them in. The eggs should be thoroughly mixed, but not mashed.
Arrange a bed of greens over 3 slices of the bread, then divide the egg salad among them. Sprinkle each with smoked paprika before topping with a second slice of bread.
Yield: 3 servings
Approximate nutrition per serving: 530 calories, 31 grams fat (10 grams saturated, 53 percent fat calories), 18 grams protein, 42 grams carbohydrate, 390 milligrams cholesterol, 3 grams dietary fiber, 1,140 milligrams sodium.