Fennel is much too often overlooked and underappreciated by Americans. It appears in the spring, late summer and early fall as a plump, pale green bulb. Attached to the bulbs are stalks that are topped with feathery green leaves near which flowers grow and produce seeds. The distinguished sweet and mild anise flavor compliments salads, soups and seafood dishes very nicely. The entire plant can be used in cooking: the tender base is most commonly used, but the stalks can be used in soups and the leaves for garnish or seasoning. The seeds are used as a spice in many cultures, especially India and the Middle East. Fennel is an important ingredient to many Mediterranean dishes but is probably most prominent in traditional Italian cuisine.
I really enjoy thin slices of raw fennel in my salads, but I think it is most delicious cooked—braised, roasted or sautéed are my favorites. Cooking really brings out the vegetable’s natural sweetness and makes the hint of anise or licorice taste virtually undetectable (which is the solution for those who have an aversion to the flavor).
It took me a while to learn how to cut a fennel bulb correctly. The easiest way is to cut the stalks just where they meet the bulb. Then cut the bulb in half and remove the harder core that resides in the center using a paring knife. I usually end up thinly slicing the bulb for recipes, which can be done vertically through the bulb.
I don’t know what it is about fennel and fish but they really are a wonderful combination. The French in Marseilles discovered this long ago and came up with bouillabaisse, the classic Provencal seafood stew that is characteristically flavored with fennel. While the dish is a delicious culinary concoction, it is rather complicated and time-consuming to make.
I had several bulbs of fennel that were in need of some attention. I thought, why not create a simple, bouillabaisse-inspired dish, that features salmon and the distinct aroma of fennel? I was quite pleased with the result but really, I don’t think one can go wrong with the wonderful combination of provençal flavors: fennel, saffron, orange, white wine, garlic and herbs.
Provencal Salmon over Fennel and Cannellini
If you don’t cook many French dishes, you probably aren’t familiar with the term bouquet garni. It is simply a bundle of herbs that is used to season Provencal stocks, soups and stews. The bouquet garni is cooked with other ingredients and removed prior to serving.
For the bouquet garni
1/3 cup fennel fronds (reserve extra for garnish)
4 thyme sprigs
1 (4-inch) long strip orange peel, no pith
For the “bouillabaisse”
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large fennel bulb, thinly sliced
2 leeks, thinly sliced, white and pale green parts only
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
3 cups low-salt chicken broth
½ cup cooked cannellini beans (canned is fine, but rinse first)
For the salmon
4 6-ounce skinned wild salmon fillets
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ tsp freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon Herbes de Provence
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange zest
2 tablespoons olive oil
Fennel fronds, for garnish
1. Stack bouquet garni ingredients and tie together with kitchen twine.
2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add fennel and leek and sauté until soft, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 minute longer, stirring frequently.
3. Pour in wine and saffron and bring to a boil. Add broth, bouquet garni and cannellini beans; return to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes.
4. About 30 minutes into cooking, prepare the salmon. Coarsely grind fennel seeds in a coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle. In a small bowl, combine salt, pepper, ground fennel seeds, Herbes de Provence, orange zest and olive oil. Generously rub the mixture onto the tops of each fillet.
5. Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Place the fillets, coated side down, in the pan. Cook about 2 minutes, until the spice mixture forms a brown crust. Remove from pan.
6. Just before the fennel and beans are done, add salmon fillets to the pan, nestling them in the broth. Cover and cook about 5 minutes, just until salmon is cooked through. Divide the salmon and fennel-bean mixture among plates or shallow bowls. Top with fennel fronds and serve immediately.