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Fennell is often a forgotten side dish

A wonderful vegetable at the market this time of year is fennel. You can find it in most grocery stores these days.

Fennel is often listed as an herb with anise flavor and it can be used that way. Florence fennel, a cultivar with inflated leaf bases is the vegetable, eaten cooked or raw. It is called finocchio in Italy where it is often used. If you do not know what to look for, it is the white bulb with the long, lacey green fronds. It is a pretty vegetable, and also sweet and herbal. Fennel is sometimes incorrectly labeled as anise, a plant with licorice-flavored seeds and leaves that are also used in cooking.

Fennel does have subtle and delightful anise notes, which vary depending on how you cook it. Serve fennel raw and thinly sliced to bring out its sweetness. Roast it, braise it, or sauté it to mellow its flavor—and to transform fennel from crunchy to meltingly tender.

When buying, look for bulbs that are small and tender, they will be the least fibrous. Avoid bulbs that are bruised, cracked, or browned. Try to always buy the bulb with the fronds attached. These fronds are a wonderful garnish to a fennel-flavored dish. Fennel bulbs will keep for about five days in the refrigerator. The outermost layer and core of large bulbs can be tough; discard it if discolored and cut out the core.

Fennel performs well in our winter gardens as it is a perennial that does well in the cool weather. When buying seeds to grow plants for the vegetable, get Florence fennel. If you just want the herb, a decorative bronze variety can be used in the flower garden, not that the vegetable is an ugly plant and it does produce yellow umbrels that look a lot like dill.The seeds can be used as well for flavoring.

Fennel is and impressive source of vitamin C and other antioxidants. It is rich in fiber and potassium. Anethole, the compound that gives fennel its singular flavor, has anti-inflammatory properties. And fennel is prized by herbalists for its ability to alleviate stomach cramps and other digestive distress.

I use fennel a lot because if you slowly cook it in a small amount of butter, it turns into a great side for any meat or fish. Fennel seeds also give the taste of the anise flavor so they can be used it you just want the taste and not the veggie.

These recipes are from the January 2010 of Bon Appétit.

Salmon Salad with Fennel, Orange, and Mint

Serves 4-main course servings

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup unseasoned rice vinegar

2 whole star anise*

4 cups cold water

1 1-pound salmon fillet with skin

2 navel oranges

4 cups very thinly sliced fennel (from 2 medium bulbs)

1 cup small fresh mint leaves

2 tablespoons olive oil

Place sugar, vinegar, star anise, and four cups cold water in large deep skillet. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves.

Add salmon fillet, skin side up, to skillet. Cover skillet and remove from heat. Let stand 10 minutes.

Using slotted spoon, turn salmon over; cover and let stand until salmon is just opaque in center, five to six minutes longer. Remove salmon from liquid and cool. Coarsely flake salmon into medium bowl, removing bones and skin; set aside.

Cut top and bottom ¼ inch off each orange. Stand one orange on one flat end. Using small sharp knife, cut off peel and white pith. Working over large bowl, cut between membranes, releasing segments into bowl. Repeat with remaining orange. Add salmon, fennel, mint, and olive oil. Gently toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper.

*Star –shaped seedpods; sold in the spice section of most supermarkets and Asian markets.

Spicy Spaghetti with Fennel and Herbs

Serves 8

1 3-ounce package pancetta (Italian bacon), chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 garlic cloves, chopped

2 large red jalapeño-chiles, seeded, finely chopped (about ¼ cup) My jalapenos may be a bit hotter than some. You may not like it this hot.

2 large fennel bulbs, stalks trimmed, cut into thin wedges with some core attached

1 ½ cups low-salt chicken broth

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Italian parsley, divided

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 ½ teaspoon crushed fennel seeds

1 pound spaghetti

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 ½ cups grated Pecorino Romano or Pecorino Toscano cheese, divided

Sauté pancetta in large skillet over medium heat until pancetta is golden. Using slotted spoon, transfer pancetta to paper towels.

Add 1 tablespoon oil to drippings in skillet. Add garlic and chiles; sauté over medium heat one minute. Add fennel; cook until beginning to soften, five minutes.

Mix in broth, 2 tablespoons parsley, lemon juice, and fennel seeds. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until fennel is very tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper.

Cook pasta until tender; drain. Reserve 1 cup cooking liquid. Return pasta to pot.

Uncover skillet with fennel mixture and return to high heat. Cook until almost all liquid is absorbed, about four minutes. Add fennel to pasta.

Stir in 2 tablespoons oil, ½ cup cheese, and pancetta. Add cooking liquid by ¼ cupfuls if dry. Toss pasta; transfer to serving bowl. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons parsley over. Serve with cheese.