The real beauty of it is not only its magnificent, fresh, clean flavour, but also its incredible versatility. Fennel is something I use in my cooking in many forms – as the hero in a dish, as an accompaniment, as the basis of a stock or sauce, and I even use the seeds to add a burst of flavour.
Fennel is an aromatic plant and can be either leafy or bulbous. I like to use Florence fennel – or Italian fennel as it’s sometimes known – in my cooking. It has a broad, bulbous base and is eaten rather more like a vegetable in salads and soups. It has a milder aniseed flavour than the rest of the fennel family. It’s perfect for cooking and, though milder, still adds a lovely crisp and fresh dimension to a dish.
If you’re buying fennel from your local farmers market or greengrocer, it’s best to look out for those that are smaller, as these are the younger bulbs and are more tender than the larger ones. Always look for clean, bright bulbs without any blemishes as that tells you they will be fresh and crisp.
Both the base and stems of Florence fennel can be cooked and they are best braised or roasted to achieve a sweet and tender result. Before you braise the fennel, cut off the root and leaves, and then peel off the outer layer of skin. You can then cut down or across and shred the wonderful bulb. Simply boil it in salted water for about 15 minutes, by which time it will be tender and soft and should give off a wonderful aroma that spreads around your whole kitchen.
Fennel is just as delicious raw. You can mix it into a green salad or combine it with citrus fruit to really get a punch of flavour in your dish. It’s best eaten fresh, especially in soups and salads, but you can store fresh fennel in your fridge for up to three days if you wrap it in damp kitchen towel and then seal it in an airtight bag.
You can also try common fennel. Though it is bulbless, its stems and greenery are used in the same ways as those of Florence fennel. Sweet or common fennel is grown as a herb, as well as for its seeds, and is often used in French and Italian cooking. The leaf is enjoyed in many sauces and in mayonnaise.
Each part is edible and all parts have a strong aniseed-like flavour that is a glorious marriage when paired with fish at this time of year.
All types of fennel are at their best from June until around September, so now is the time to make the most of it. Once you start using fennel in your dishes, like me, you’ll find it hard to resist.
Smoked salmon roulade with crab garnish and chilled fennel soup
For the roulade
300g sliced smoked salmon (150g for slices and 150g for the salmon mousse)
100ml whipping cream
1 tablespoon chopped chives
1 teaspoon diced lemon confit
Juice of half a lemon
For the crab garnish
50g peas (podded weight)
Handful fresh basil
Small bunch chopped lettuce
160g white crabmeat
Salt and pepper
200ml crème fraiche
Small bunch chopped chives
For the soup
1 white onion, sliced
3 heads of fennel, thinly sliced
2 litres chicken or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper
Crème fraiche (for garnish)
1 head of fennel (for garnish)
To make the roulade
Trim the sliced salmon into a rectangle and lay it out flat on clingfilm.
Make the mousse by blending the remaining salmon with the cream, then sieving. Add the chives, diced lemon confit and lemon juice, then mix well. Layer it smoothly over the rectangle, then roll it using the clingfilm and wrap it. Make a sausage shape and tie at both ends.
Set in the fridge for an hour.
To make the crab garnish
Blanch the peas in boiling water for 15 seconds.
Cut the basil into strips and chop the lettuce. Mix the peas, basil and lettuce with the crab and season with salt and pepper. Zest the lime and lemon.
Whisk the crème fraiche with the juice of half the lime until it forms soft peaks.
Add the zest and chopped chives.
To make the soup
Heat a heavy-bottomed pan and add a dash of olive oil and sweat the sliced onion and season and sauté for two to three minutes.
Add the sliced fennel and sweat with the lid on for another two to three minutes until the fennel is soft, being careful not to colour.
Add the pastis, reduce and add the stock before cooking for 12 to 15 minutes until the fennel is soft.
Blend and pass through a sieve, check seasoning and place in the fridge to chill.
Garnish with crème fraiche and raw fennel.
After an hour, take the roulade from the fridge and remove the clingfilm carefully. Slice into the size you need.
Place some of the crab mixture into a ring in the centre of a bowl. Put the roulade on top. Garnish with a slice of fennel, and fish roe.
To serve, pour the chilled fennel soup over the top.