I must admit that I warmed to fennel a bit late in the game. My grandmother has long used fennel leaves in her caldo verde (Portuguese green soup) but otherwise I couldn’t see much use for it in cooking. I had mistakenly lumped it into the “why bother?” category with celery and iceberg lettuce. Then a few years ago I had a particularly crisp, sophisticated and refreshing shaved fennel salad at Salt Tasting Lounge in Gastown and I had a serious change of heart.
With a texture similar to celery and a delicate anise-like flavour, fennel is not just a fancy garnish. Fennel has a long history of use in ancient Greek, Roman and Ayurvedic cultures as a medicinal plant. The seeds, leaves and bulbs of the fennel plant are all edible. Candy coated fennel seeds are commonly consumed after an Indian meal as a digestive aid and anti-flatulent. Fennel tea is commonly given to nursing mothers and it helps ease gas in babies; fennel is a primary component of gripe water. We know that colourful pigments are one clue to anti-oxidant power but so are aromatic essential oils. Fennel is a potent anti-inflammatory, rich in vitamin C and plenty of phytochemicals including rutin and kaempferols. The potassium in fennel helps to regulate blood pressure and assist with fluid balance in the body; the high potassium content may explain fennel’s traditional use as encouraging urination. Fennel is also great for the bones: one cup of raw fennel has 42 mg of calcium and 15 mg of magnesium.
Choose fennel with clean, firm bulbs that are free of blemishes. Any flowering on the stalks tells you that the bulb is past its prime, so move on! Available now, fennel is a wonderful vegetable to carry you through to spring. Enjoy it raw for its crisp refreshing taste while the weather is warm. Through the winter, roast it for a mellow, sweet treat to lift the flavour of other root vegetables.
Fennel, Mint and Feta Spaghetti
Since it was a scorcher I didn’t feel like heating up the kitchen too much so I thought I would keep the oven (and me!) cool by creating a simple summer pasta. This is “fancy” food for everyday. By the time you boil water and cook the pasta, dinner is done. You come out smelling like a licorice-scented rose. Laugh in the face of midweek entertaining and tell your guests you took the afternoon off to cook.
340 g package of spaghetti ( I used corn pasta for a wheat and gluten-free option)
1 garlic clove, very finely minced
1/2, 28 g package of fresh mint plus a few sprigs for garnish
1/2 cup walnut halves, chopped
1 cup crumbled light feta
pinch salt + more to finish
dash dried chili flakes
1/4 cup good extra virgin olive oil
1 medium fennel bulb, finely sliced or shaved
1 wedge of lemon
Boil a large pot of water and cook pasta according to package directions. Meanwhile, create the feta pesto. In a mortar and pestle, grind the garlic, mint and walnuts with a pinch of salt. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, just mash the ingredients in a large bowl with the back of a wooden spoon.
Note: because the garlic in this recipe is raw, mince it very well lest someone get a large fire-y chunk of garlic. If you really don’t like raw garlic, gently saute it in a teaspoon of olive oil before adding to the mixture.
Then place the mixture in a large bowl (if you didn’t already) and mash in the feta, chili flakes and olive oil. Set aside.
Shave the fennel on a mandolin or finely slice and set aside. Twiddle thumbs.
(If you prefer, you could gently saute the fennel with the garlic and add to the feta mixture.)
When pasta is cooked, add to feta mixture and combine gently. Then plate each portion and top with a generous handful of the shaved fennel. Enjoy! Serves 4
A note about my latest obsession…the japanese spiral mandolin. This ingenious invention makes creating delicately shaved vegetables a snap. Just insert the veg onto the handle and spin a ridiculous amount of veg in 60 seconds. And, unlike the cumbersome food processor, this thing also cleans up in 60 seconds. Vegetable lovers, meet your new best friend.