Fennel is coming to the end of its season, at least in our garden, so you best get in quick to really enjoy it. It is a fantastic plant, with a unique anise flavour that is at home in rich, Italian home-style cooking. Commonly associated with mid-winter cooking, fennel is a great multi-purpose plant that offers everything from seeds, stalks, leaves, flowers and the all-important bulb.
Closely related to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander, fennel has been used for thousands of years in cooking and in medicine to improve everything from your breath, to stomach problems and cancer. The profound aniseed flavour is perhaps best known for its use in absinthe, the drink of choice for French Impressionists. The Fennel that you often find at the supermarket is a green and white bulb known as Florence fennel, from the bulb sprouts long stalks which can also be eaten (a bit like celery) if picked before they become woody. The feathery green leaves that sprout from the top of the stalk are also edible and can be used like a garnish to brighten up a heavy dish. Finally, as the plant starts to flower you can use the pollen to add a truly gourmet feel to cheese plates and desserts.
Fennel is yet another vegetable that could be labelled a ‘superfood’. It is high in vitamin C, and a fantastic source of fibre, potassium, calcium, iron and folate. It also has a unique combination of phytonutrients that mean that it is full of powerful antioxidants.
In India, fennel is used to freshen the breath so the seeds are often eaten raw after meals.
How to grow
Sow seeds directly into the ground in May/June to harvest in August/September. To grow the bulbs make sure you are planting Florence fennel or ‘finicchio’ as opposed to Bronze fennel which will only yield leaves and seeds/pollen.
Add a little compost to the soil before planting and if you have a heavy soil, then be sure to add a little sand to help improve drainage. If you are growing for seed then try to keep your fennel away from dill and coriander plants as the flowers can cross-pollinate, resulting in some funky tasting seeds. As the bulbs develop above ground, it’s important to hill up the soil around the bulb to stop it from turning green and bitter.
Unfortunately, fennel has few friends in the plant world and doesn’t seem to grow well with others. While the flowers tend to attract beneficial insects, we tend to keep it away from other plants, especially potatoes and capsicum. It can also spread if left to go to seed so pay close attention. We generally harvest fennel when the bulbs are the size of a tennis ball and the plant starts to flower. You can of course continue to harvest after flowering but the bulbs will be slightly larger, a little bitter and not really suitable for use in salads.
What to do with it
The unique aniseed flavour of fennel is not to everyone’s tastes. I don’t generally tend to like it raw, but many people love it in a salad with tart fruits such as orange or apple. It also goes really well with pork which is how I have used it in the recipe below.
To prepare, I generally trim the stems and base, cut in half and remove the core and then thinly slice. You can store it in the crisper in the fridge for a few days, but the flavour does seem to reduce over time so best to use as soon as possible.
Pork & Fennel Ragù
As we’re getting to the end of the season, the bulbs are getting to be on the larger size which means they are better when cooked with other strong flavours (unless you really love aniseed, which I don’t).
In this recipe I’ve paired the last of the season’s fennel with some good-quality pork sausages, and cooked it down into a rich, luscious ragù. We’re still in the tricky part of the season where warm days often followed by cooler evenings and unexpected bursts of cool weather and rain, which makes it a perfect recipe for a changing season. You’ll need a solid two to three hours to really bring out the richness of this ragù, though it will still taste great if you’ve got less time.
- 1 tbspn rice bran oil
- 1 large fennel bulb (or 2 smaller bulbs if preferred), stems removed and roughly sliced into small pieces
- 1 brown onion
- 1 red chilli, finely chopped
- 2 tspns of minced garlic (approx. 4 bulbs)
- 1 tspn caraway seeds
- 6 good-quality pork sausages, skins removed
- 1 big glass of good-quality red wine
- 1-2 tbspns tomato paste
- 1 bottle of tomato passata (or 1 can crushed tomatoes)
- 2 sprigs rosemary, stems removed and finely chopped
- 1-2 cups stock
- To serve: Cooked pasta such as spaghetti or rigatoni (follow directions on packet), fresh parmesan and chopped parsley.
- Heat the oven to 150 degrees celsius (300f).
- Heat a large, ovenproof pan (preferably a dutch oven or similar) over a low-medium flame.
- Add oil and heat.
- Add the onion and cook gently for 2-3 minutes, avoid browning.
- Add the chilli, garlic and caraway seeds and cook for a further 2-3 minutes until fragrant.
- Add the pork sausages to the pan and break up into small pieces using a wooden spoon. Fry until starting to brown, moving around the pan often.
- Add the red wine to deglaze, scraping any brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
- Add the tomato paste, passata and rosemary and stir well to incorporate.
- Add 1 cup stock and put the lid on to bring to a low boil.
- Stir well and then put in the oven for two-three hours. Add more stock if sauce is becoming too thick.
- Serve over freshly cooked pasta, topped with shredded parmesan and fresh parsley.