Sat, Oct 14, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Ian’s Table: Bulbs from Florence

Fennel bulbs are still relatively hard to source in Taiwan, but they are worth the effort for their ability to provide a host of wonderful flavors that vary according to how they are prepared

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing Reporter

Caramelized fennel and salt pork salad brings out the luscious flavors of bulb fennel.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

When people talk about fennel in Taiwan, it is generally about leaf fennel, which is cultivated for the fronds and used more as a herb than as a vegetable. The familiar bulb fennel of Western cuisine, primarily Italian, has is own unique characteristics in the kitchen, and is quite a different beast to leaf fennel. The two are not interchangeable.

Bulb fennel is also called Florence fennel and while its fronds can be used, it is particularly cultivated for large bulb at its base. The fronds are an added extra, but are most often removed before sale as they wilt easily and spoil the appearance of the fennel bulb on the supermarket shelf and market stall.

As with zucchini (Taipei Times, July 22, 2017), another delicious vegetable little used in Taiwanese food, cultivation of fennel has become increasingly dependable in Taiwan to meet the needs of the growing number of Western restaurants around the country. While it remains expensive and often elusive, it availability is worth celebrating: in my case simply because it allows for the preparation of caramelized fennel and bacon salad (see accompanying recipe), one of my favorite salads — I suspect in large degree because eating it never feels like eating mere salad. That said, given Taiwan’s very warm climate, locally grown bulbs can be a little fibrous if allowed to bolt before harvest or to grow too large, so it is worth taking a bit of care with selection.

The notable characteristic of fennel is its taste and aroma of anise. This is not a flavor universally popular, but it should be noted that in fennel, this element is extremely muted and balanced with notes of grassy freshness. Bulb fennel is delicious eaten raw, and one of its most famous applications is the serving of paper thin slices of fennel lightly salted as a way of bringing a meal to an end, as its aromas sweeten the breath. Some Indian restaurants go so far as to offer fennel seeds (sometimes sugared) at the end of a meal for the same purpose, and also as a digestif to prevent indigestion after a heavy meal.

Thin slices of fennel can also be tossed into any kind of salad, pairing particularly well with celery. A mixture of fennel shavings with apple, frisee, romaine, oakleaf or other nice leaves, along with a scattering of walnuts, and pungent cheese like Roquefort and a quickly whisked up vinaigrette makes for a glorious light meal all on its own.

Raw bulb fennel, for all its many attractions, is no match for any preparation that sees the richly sweet flesh of the bulb come into close contact with heat, which draws out its sugars and creates luscious caramel flavors. As its alternative name of Florence fennel suggests, bulb fennel is closely associated with Italian cooking and is an integral part of the much vaunted Mediterranean diet. All sorts of studies have shown the presence of phytonutrients with impressive credentials as antioxidants and boosters of immune systems. It has loads of vitamin C, and its fiber, folate and potassium content are all good things in regard to cardiovascular health. High end supermarkets sometimes stock bulb fennel, as do some health food outlets that also have a fresh grocery section. Fennel is physically quite robust but its delicate flavor and aroma deteriorate quickly even with careful storage, so it is best to get it from a reputable source.

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