Beginning to bolt just after my coriander is a fellow umbellifer, Florence fennel, which grocers often label as finocchio (Italian for “fennel”) or anise. Florence fennel is not anise; nor is it the fennel that grows wild over much of California, perfuming the air after fires and providing children with “Indian bubble gum,” the Styrofoam-like flesh of the dry tall stems. That fennel reached America from Iberia, where its delicate foliage feeds swarms of colorful little snails who later get eaten by the bowlful in Lisbon bars. Fennel of the wild sort produces the best-tasting seeds, but only Florence fennel—a smaller, tamer, garden variety—can be eaten as a vegetable. This fennel swells at the base of the stems into a plump, white, layered bulb that you can use much like celery.*
Don’t wait too long, though. If you do, the outer layers of the bulb will grow tough and stringy, and the core will grow thick and long, though it will still be edible (it is very good candied). Fennel bulbs past their prime are best used cooked rather than raw.
Because much of the anise-like flavor is lost with cooking, I usually prefer to use my Florence fennel raw, but even young fennel bulbs can be a little tough for some tastes. So for salads and pickles I generally slice the bulbs very fine, using a mandoline. This would be too much trouble with my big stainless-steel mandoline, which takes me at least five minutes just to set up. But my plastic little Kyocera mandoline is perfect for the job. The secret is the ever-sharp ceramic blade. I also like the simple mechanism on the back side for adjusting the thickness of the slice.
I used the Kyocera mandolin recently to make—
¾ pound Florence fennel bulbs (about two small ones), with a few inches of the stems, sliced very thin
1 teaspoon pickling salt
Zest of ½ orange, in thin strips
6 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Juice of 1 orange (about 6 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon sugar
4 black peppercorns, cracked with a smack from a knife blade held horizontally
In a bowl, toss the fennel slices with the salt. Let them stand for an hour.
Drain the liquid from the fennel, and toss the slices with the orange zest. Pack this mixture into a pint jar.
In a saucepan, heat the vinegar, orange juice, sugar, and pepper, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Pour the hot liquid over the fennel. Cap the jar, let it cool, and store it in the refrigerator.
The pickle will be ready to eat in a day or two. Serve it on top of mixed raw greens or on its own as a salad, sprinkled with a bit of minced fennel frond.
The best source I’ve found of additional ideas for using Florence fennel is Elizabeth Schneider’s Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide. Having grown up in Greenwich Village eating fennel from Little Italy, Elizabeth uses Florence fennel with abandon–baked, fried, braised, stir-fried, and puréed, in soups and salads and pasta sauces, and even baked whole and stuffed into chicken.
*Celery is yet another cousin in the big, marvelously aromatic family Umbelliferae, so-named for their umbrella-like flower clusters.