Fennel, with its anise-tinged flavor, can be polarizing, but it’s one of my absolute favorite veggies because it is so darn adaptable. It’s great raw in a salad, contributes an herby-floral note to any stew or sauté, and adds just the right amount of sweetness to tomato soup – mellowing the acidity in the process. Fennel seeds add interest to many baked dishes, especially cookies and biscotti. Its varied uses throughout history include being an ingredient in absinthe, medicine and insect repellent!

Nichols Farm fennel for sale at the Evanston Farmers’ Market. Credit: Julie Chernoff

This flowering plant (the wide, lacy yellow flower heads are gorgeous in a floral arrangement), with feathery leaves that resemble a larger, sparser dill, is a member of the carrot family. It’s popular in Indian and Chinese cooking, as well as French, Italian and Middle Eastern.

And yes, you will find fennel in winter recipes, but there’s something about the delicacy of flavor and the crunch that really speaks to me of springtime. I found a nice display of them at the Nichols Farm booth at the Evanston Farmers’ Market recently.

Here are some recipe ideas that take advantage of these tasty spring veggies:

Roast them with some Parmesan cheese

Clean and trim a few fennel bulbs. If smaller/thinner, cut in half lengthwise. If larger and more bulbous, place on its side and cut into ½-inch thick rounds. Oil a baking dish large enough for all fennel to be in a single layer. Drizzle generously with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sprinkle generously with grated or shredded parmesan cheese and bake in a preheated 375 F oven until golden brown, about 40-50 minutes. Garnish with chopped fennel fronds.

Make a bright and sunny salad

Start with a bed of fresh arugula, then layer with shaved raw fennel, sliced oranges (pith and peel removed, and I like to use a mix of navel, blood, and Jaffa oranges), some shards of parmesan cheese and a handful of toasted, sliced almonds. Make a quick dressing with a little chopped shallot, lemon juice, a bit of rice wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper, then drizzle it over the salad. Chop up some fennel fronds for garnishing the top.

Top a burrata

Thinly shave the fennel bulbs on a mandoline slicer and season with salt and pepper. Toss with lemon juice and olive oil and let sit for a few minutes. Cut burrata balls in half and place on a platter. Top with shaved fennel salad, a sprinkle of fennel pollen and picked fennel fronds, and some chopped chives. Serve with bruschetta.

Pour yourself a cocktail

Muddle fennel fronds, slice lemon together in a cocktail shaker. Add prosecco (2 ounces per person), Campari (¾ ounce per person) and a touch of simple syrup to taste. Muddle a bit more, than shake with ice and strain. Garnish with a lemon peel and a fennel frond.

Try one of these tried-and-true recipes

The internet is an infinite recipe resource, but how do you know which to trust? Not all recipes are created equal. Here are some I return to over and over that showcase spring fennel the way it deserves.

Bon Appetit’s Slow-Cooked Halibut with Garlic Cream and Fennel

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Roasted Chicken with Clementines and Arak

Food 52’s Fennel Biscotti

Giada de Laurentiis’ Fennel Upside-Down Cake

Smitten Kitchen’s Fennel Ice Cream

Julie Chernoff

Julie Chernoff is Food Editor at the RoundTable and a longtime food and culture writer. She loves all things Evanston and has lived here since 1989. Contact her at food@evanstonroundtable.com.

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