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Finally, fennel gets its day in the garden and in the kitchen

Renee Studebaker
Fennel, baby Brussels sprouts and baby carrots will join the sausage and beans.

Fennel is the glamour girl of the cool-season kitchen garden.

With its creamy white, curvy base that gradually tapers into slender green stalks tipped with frilly fronds, fennel lends an airy and aromatic presence to an otherwise earthy (and dare I say frumpy?) garden of beets, turnips and cabbages.

When it's mature, fennel produces parasol-like umbrels covered in tiny, fragrant yellow flowers. And finally, there's that alluring scent and aniselike flavor. It's no wonder that many fine-dining chefs (as well as swallowtail butterflies and several types of bees) are drawn to this plant.

But what about the home cook? Can fennel fit into the home kitchen repertoire alongside carrots and peas or broccoli and cabbage?

After several years of growing fennel in my home garden and trying out different ways of cooking and eating it, I say yes, yes, most definitely yes. And I'll go even further and say that if you haven't tried cooking with fennel bulb, you're missing out on something good to eat and fun to play with in the kitchen.

Raw and sliced thin, fennel bulb adds a bright crunch to salads and slaws, and it's especially good when combined with citrus and olives. When cooked (in particular, when caramelized), the sweet aniselike flavor becomes a gentler background note that enhances the flavor of seafood, pork and poultry.

And, as I discovered while experimenting with different ways to prepare the bulb, caramelized fennel also adds a subtle but irresistible nuance to cheesy comfort foods. Stir sliced caramelized fennel into your favorite macaroni and cheese recipe. Or slip a slice into your next grilled cheese sandwich. (Although I haven't tried to feed a grilled cheese and fennel sandwich to any of the vegetable-wary kids I know, I'm planning to try. I bet it would sail down a hungry little hatch with barely a flinch.)

I never ate fennel as a kid, which I would guess is probably true for many kids, unless they grew up in Italy, France or Greece, where it is almost as common an ingredient as onion or garlic.

And like a lot of vegetables and herbs associated with the Mediterranean, fennel has been around for a long, long time. In Greek mythology, when Prometheus stole fire from the lightning of Zeus, he concealed it in a hollow stalk of fennel so he could carry it to humanity. Fire and caramelized fennel. Thank you, Prometheus.

Italian Sausage with Caramelized Fennel, Apple and Butterbeans

This recipe appears to have lots of moving parts, but much of it can be prepared in advance so that dinner is mostly a matter of reheating and assembling ingredients. Serve with a salad of mixed greens and a tangy vinaigrette dressing.

1 cup dry large lima beans, aka butter beans (see notes)

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves, coarsely chopped

1 fennel bulb, stalks removed, 1/2-inch slices

1 Granny Smith apple, unpeeled, 1/2-inch slices

About 1/2 cup baby Brussels sprouts and carrots (or mature vegetables, cubed)

1/4 cup shallot or scallion, coarsely chopped

1 cup chicken stock (homemade is best; see notes)

1/2 cup dry white wine

2 or 3 links of good quality Italian sausage (see notes)

Fresh fennel fronds for garnish

Soak and cook beans in a saucepan until tender. The last few minutes of cooking, add salt, pepper, dash of olive oil and thyme. Set aside or refrigerate.

To a large, hot skillet (I use a heavy stainless pan), add splash of olive oil, two apple slices and two fennel slices. Cook over medium heat until apple and fennel are lightly browned on both sides and tender (but not mushy). Apple slices will be done first; remove them and set aside. When fennel is tender, remove and set aside. Add carrots to pan and sautée until tender-crisp. Add Brussels sprouts and shallot and continue cooking for a few more minutes until just brown. (Add more oil if pan dries out). Add stock and wine and stir to loosen brown bits from pan. Add salt and pepper to taste and reduce heat to low.

While sauce is cooking, bring 1/2 cup of water to boil in a skillet and add raw sausage. Reduce heat and cook for a few minutes on both sides until casing becomes opaque. Remove sausage and drain well. To a dry hot skillet, add splash of olive oil and brown the sausage on all sides. When cooked through, remove and drain on a towel.

For each serving, call on your inner chef and stack the ingredients on a large white plate, with beans on the bottom. Drizzle with sauce and garnish with fennel fronds. Voilà - fine dining in the comfort of your own home.

Notes: I used giant Peruvian lima beans from the bulk section at Central Market. They are so creamy and wonderful that I kept sneaking bean bites while cooking the other ingredients for this dish. Any large, dry lima bean will work, though, and if you hate limas, use your favorite white bean instead. I used Italian sausage from Peach Creek Farm. (You can find them at the downtown farmers' market every Saturday.) The stock can make or break this dish. To make your own, place roasted chicken neck, back and wings, plus any leftover brown bits from the roasting pan, in a large saucepan with 3 cups of water. Add a chopped garlic clove, two fennel stalks with fronds removed, one chopped carrot and 1/2 cup of dry white wine. Simmer for at least three hours. Strain, add salt and pepper and chill until time to make the sauce. (Skim off fat and any bits that rise to the top before using. )

- Renee Studebaker

It's hard to go wrong when you're playing in the kitchen with caramelized fennel. Here are a couple of simple dishes to try. Measurements are not crucial here; just taste and adjust as you go.

Pasta with Fennel and Shrimp

In a heavy skillet, sautée coarsely chopped fennel bulb and onion in olive oil until caramelized. Stir often and do not allow to burn. Add a little chopped garlic, salt, pepper and a few hot pepper flakes (if desired) and continue to cook for a minute more. Add raw shrimp, peeled and deveined. Cook, stirring often, until shrimp are opaque. Remove vegetables and shrimp from pan and set aside. Add a generous splash of dry white wine and about a 1/4 cup of chicken stock to the pan and cook over medium heat while scraping brown bits from the bottom of pan. When liquid has reduced by about half, stir vegetables and shrimp back into the sauce. Serve over hot penne or linguine, topped with Parmesan cheese and garnished with a couple of fennel fronds.

Variation: Stir in a handful of fresh spinach leaves or chopped roasted sweet red pepper at same time garlic is added.

Fennel and Potato Bake

Blanche slices of fennel bulb and slices of peeled potato in boiling water. Drain well and layer in a casserole dish, top with several splashes of milk or half and half. Salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle generously with a mix of Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs. Dot with several pats of butter and bake at 350 degrees until vegetables are soft and top is brown and bubbly.

Fennel bulbs and fennel seeds are not created equal

The fennel bulb and fennel seed do not come from the same plant. The vegetable version of the plant, known as Florence fennel, can be grown in the home garden in fall, winter (when mild) and spring. Florence fennel is also what you're most likely to encounter at the grocery store. It looks similar to celery, with a white bulb at one end and wispy fronds at the other. The rounded end is formed by leaves that grow around each other tightly until they form a bulbous base.

All parts of Florence fennel are edible, but the bulb has the mildest flavor. When caramelized by roasting or sautéeing, the bulb's flavor becomes quite delicate. The fronds carry a more intense anise flavor, not as strong as a black jelly bean, but strong enough that they can overpower other flavors in a dish if you get carried away.

Even if you've never eaten fennel as a vegetable, you've probably tasted it in its other form - a spicy seed - which is harvested from the herb known as Common Fennel. Common fennel can be found growing wild in fields and along roadsides throughout the Mediterranean. Common fennel will not produce a bulb.

The greenish-brown seeds are used to season Italian sausages and to add flavor to rustic breads. Ground fennel seed is a common ingredient in Indian curries, and it's one of the spices in Chinese five-spice powder.

Throughout history, wild fennel has been used for all sorts of nonculinary things, including breath freshener, appetite suppressant and digestive aid. In ancient times, some believed that fronds of fennel would drive away evil spirits, especially witches.

- Renee Studebaker