The first of a two-part series on ideas for using the whole fennel plant – bulb, stalks and fronds – in several complementary dishes…
One of the great advantages of belonging to a CSA or growing your own food, even in a little kitchen garden like mine, is that you often obtain the entire plant. The bulb of fennel and bushy fronds, beets, radishes and turnips with their edible greens, cilantro with its roots, peas with pods, and so on. Even though what’s typically offered in the supermarket, or even in the local organic grocery, is trimmed to the most prevalent form of the vegetable, maybe just maybe, that’s because that’s more durable, longer lasting, prettier to display, easier to ship. Personally, I get a lot of pleasure from seeing how vegetables, fruits and flowers grow. And when we have an excess of something, I feel free to experiment.
Fennel from our CSA provided just that opportunity as it came bunched in pairs, with relatively small bulbs and nearly 30-inch long stalks laden with bright green fronds. I say “bulbs” since that’s what the base of fennel resembles. Actually, in so-called Florence fennel, the bulb type, these are thick stalks. Think of them like celery, or even chard. (Fennel, without the bulb habit, is typically thought of as an herb, harvested for its leaves.)
It’s easy to figure out what to do with the bulbs and the tender stalks, but that volume of fronds was daunting. I’ve gone through a full-fennel experience in the fall, at the beginning of the Dark Days, so I know that successive cooking of various parts is a good idea. Sometime, I will elaborate on my theory – actually a method – of successive cooking, a one-thing-leads-to-another approach, related largely to the use and re-use of water. That’s what started me off .
First, I soaked dried baby lima beans in water overnight and drained them, discarding the water. (This was hardly necessary because they turned out to be young beans that would cook relatively quickly.) I covered the drained beans with fresh water, added salt and a giant handful of fennel fronds, and lightly simmered them stovetop for an hour or so. I separated the beans from the liquid to cool, and then re-combined them to store. The beans became infused with the anise/licorice flavor and aroma of the fennel and the resulting broth was amazing. From the beans, the broth had the viscosity of chicken stock and, from the fennel, an alluring herb flavor and greenish hue.
I made soup from the beans, broth and separately braised fennel, sprinkled with fresh fennel fronds. A little freshly ground black pepper is all the extra flavoring it needed.
Mixed Bean Salad
I also made a delicious, garlicky mixed bean salad by combining the cooked limas and yellow wax beans and green beans that were cooked until tender in fennel-bean broth. Dressed with a clove or two of garlic mashed to a paste with salt and doused with olive oil, as well as a few chopped fennel fronds, this was a very flavorful salad that would be great to take to a picnic.