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Fennel provides sweet, bright respite from heavy flavors

Fennel has bright anise flavor. | Matthew Mead~AP

Fennel has a bright anise flavor. | Matthew Mead~AP

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Updated: December 17, 2011 8:04AM

Licorice as a Thanksgiving flavor? Kind of, and it’s surprisingly good.

It’s easier — and more delicious — than you might think. That’s because fennel, as both a seed and a vegetable, can lend a delicate and even sweet anise flavor to the meal from soup to dessert and every dish in between.

Thinly shaved, the bright white bulb of raw fennel becomes a crisp, bracing salad or creamy slaw. Braised, it mellows and sweetens, adding depth to dishes such as mashed potatoes. Roasted, fennel turns caramel brown and sweet as candy, and simmered in a stock it offers complexity that outstrips other aromatics.

“The great thing about fennel and all anise flavors is they are so kind to other flavors,” says Niki Segnit, author of The Flavor Thesaurus (Bloomsbury, $27). “They always make everything taste a little bit more expensive.”

Fennel seeds are both grassy and sweet. Added to savory ingredients — sweet Italian sausage is a classic — they add a pop of palate-cleansing lightness. Sprinkled over sweet items, such as roasted carrots, their crunch cuts through the sugar with a delicate spray of anise. Ground into a spice rub, they make the other flavors sing.

“They’re punchy,” says Andrew Dornenburg, co-author of The Flavor Bible (Little, Brown, $35) and What to Drink with What You Eat (Bulfinch, $35). “Fennel seed will bring out those extra notes.”

Fennel has long been recognized as a digestive (and a breath freshener). In India, diners chomp on the seeds after a meal. In Italy, fennel bulb is served as a final nibble, sometimes with orange or dried fruits. In the United States, people often serve shaved fennel salad, sometimes at the end of the meal.

“The Thanksgiving menu can be so heavy,” says Karen Page, Dornenburg’s co-author. “Having that fennel salad really gives you a respite.”


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