There’s a running joke amongst our team about my love for fennel. Every year, I’m quite adamant to limit vegetables to one dish each a season, maybe two. But every year, I find myself trying to sneak fennel into three or four new dishes. We only served this for one season at the restaurant on our very first dinner menu in 2017. However, it's still what I crave when I first see those white bulbs as it turns chilly every year.
There is something so alluring about this underused winter vegetable. It is subtle but powerful, its texture and light aniseed taste lend themselves well to so many different preparations. Use it shaved, grated or chopped up raw, grilled, roasted or braised, you can’t go wrong. Always buy them attached to their greens and separate the stalks from the bulbs as soon as possible to prolong their life. Use fresh fennel in the peak of its season for the most delicate texture before it becomes too fibrous late into spring.
The leaves or fronds are prized possessions throughout the season. I put them on top of everything. Beautiful albeit a little lanky, they look like the taller sibling to dill but not nearly as assertive. Their light aroma is a fantastic addition to any simple dressing, as we demonstrate in this recipe. Make sure to dry them thoroughly after washing so not to water down the taste of whatever you’re making.
This recipe is what kick-started the whole love affair. The basic method was a suggestion from a teacher and honorary uncle of mine. Its charm lies in its barebones simplicity. Charred, thick planks of fennel marinated in lemon and olive oil. We finish it with some toasted, crushed hazelnuts and small dollops of hard labaneh for added richness. That’s about it and it can’t get any better.
Grill or roast on high heat, to gloriously brown the exterior while keeping a bite to the very core. They will soften as they marinate so avoid overcooking them into mush. Roasting seems like a hands off approach, and it may well be depending on your oven, but with a recipe this simple take the time to roast the fennel perfectly. Make sure it is completely dry after washing. Don’t overcrowd the baking sheet, leave ample room for hot air to circulate freely between every piece. Flip them over half-way through cooking, move them around the baking sheet as necessary to get them evenly browned. There is magic and an art to roasting vegetables, indulge in it.
The fennel can be dressed and eaten immediately but its taste really blooms after marinating, it could be as little as 15 minutes or as long as a day or two in the fridge. Make this ahead of time for your next dinner party to accompany pretty much anything, it's a total crowd pleaser. Fennel at its finest.
3-4 bulbs of fennel, stalks separated
⅓ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons hazelnuts, toasted with skins removed
2 tablespoons hard labaneh or labaneh balls
Preheat the oven to 220C.
Clean the fennel bulbs and dry them thoroughly. For smaller bulbs, cut into quarters making sure the interior layers stay attached to the root. For larger ones, cut into thick planks lengthwise, trying to keep as many attached to the root as possible. This may be more challenging for the ends but it's okay if they separate.
Dress with a generous drizzle of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Spread out onto a large baking sheet so there is plenty of room between them all. Roast for 15-25 minutes, checking on them regularly. To get a deeper color on them, you may turn on the broiler for the final few minutes.
Roughly chop a handful of fennel fronds. Prepare the dressing in a glass jar by adding the zest of a lemon (none of the bitter, white pith below the surface), the remaining olive oil, the juice of two lemons and the chopped fronds. Season with salt and black pepper, seal the jar and shake vigorously. Taste and adjust the seasoning, you may want to add more lemon juice or olive oil depending on the strength of those used, and your personal taste.
As soon as the fennel comes out of the oven, arrange in a single layer in a large dish or bowl and douse with the dressing. Toss gently to coat all of the fennel and leave it for as little as 15 minutes or cover and refrigerate for a day or two.
When ready to serve, arrange on a serving platter or individual plates, spoon on any leftover marinade on top. Finish with a grating of lemon zest and plenty of fresh fennel fronds. Add toasted crushed hazelnuts and a few dollops of hard labaneh (labaneh balls) if you’re into that. Serve at room temperature.