I failed my first round with Fennel.
It made for an interesting still life on my counter. It’s green, spidery branches cast dramatic shadows in the afternoon. It smelled like licorice. To be honest, it was intimidating.
I glanced at it every night as I cooked dinner, sticking to the familiar greens and vegetables I know how to properly roast, toast or saute. The poor fennel eventually turned brown and landed in the garbage.
“I had to learn from my customers,” said Omar Guevara with Rancho La Familia, Inc, the 46-acre organic farm that produced my ill-fated fennel. “At first I thought it was like an onion but it’s totally different. People mainly use it for soups and salads.”
Fennel does look a bit of a mix between an onion and an herb. It’s actually in the carrot family and can be used for cooking and medicine and is a key ingredient in absinthe. Guevara says his family had ordered leaks when their supplier accidentally sent the wrong seeds and they ended up with fennel last year. The crop turned out to be popular enough at local farmers markets to keep growing the large, white bulbs with feather fronds.
“We learned that it grows pretty similar to kale, actually,” Guevara said. “It doesn’t need to be tended as much and it doesn’t require constant fertilizer like broccoli.”
Guevara’s fennel can produce bulbs the size of a small cantaloupe which he sells at the Wednesday Downtown Farmers Market and Sunday Main Street Farmers Market.
“The ones I find at the grocery store are a lot smaller,” said Main Street market coordinator Jodi Low, who is a fan of fennel. “It’s related to anise and it’s not as strong when it’s cooked as when it’s raw. I use it when I poach salmon. I just slice it into little steaks, add a little olive oil and roast it at 400 degrees and it caramelizes so it gets really sweet. People shave it into salads. They pickle it. It’s great in soups.”
Low’s words encouraged my second fennel purchase. This time I had plans to roast it. As the oven preheated I pulled up youtube videos on the proper way to slice the bulbous base of the fennel. I found cutting the bulb horizontally produced slices that looked like dentures (not appetizing). As the oven warmed up I took a taste. My eyes widened. It was delicious.
I turned off the oven, savoring the slices as a pre-dinner snack. They tasted like spring: light, fresh, like celery with the benefit of licorice.
Letting fennel go to waste is a mistake I won’t be repeating. Lucky for us, its season is just getting started.
Santa Monica has four weekly farmers markets including the Wednesday Downtown market on Arizona Avenue between 4th and Ocean from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., the Saturday Downtown market on Arizona Avenue between 4th and 2nd Streets from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., the Saturday Virginia Ave. Park market at 2200 Virginia Avenue from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and the Sunday Main Street market at 2640 Main Street from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.