The Fennel Fell In Love With An Orange

Italians have had a love affair with fennel (finocchio) dating back to before the 17th century, when they served it at the end of a meal sprinkled with salt (believed to aid in digestion). 

Other people have a love/hate relationship with fennel — I think because it can have a strong flavor. It is sometimes confused with anise, which are similar in taste and appearance, though smaller. Fun fact – fennel is also used in natural toothpastes for flavoring. 

It is an odd shaped plant and is thought to be a part of the carrot family, although to me, the fronds resemble more of a celery like stalk and if comparing taste, it is similar to celery in taste – more so than a carrot I think. Back in the day, it was found around the shores of the Mediterranean area and in modern times has become widely naturalized in many parts of the world.

Even Longfellow knew about fennel. In his 1842 poem “The Goblet of Life”  he refers to the plant and mentions its its ability to strengthen eyesight (if only that was a true remedy):

Above the lower plants it towers,
The Fennel with its yellow flowers;
And in an earlier age than ours
Was gifted with the wondrous powers
Lost vision to restore.

Florence fennel is one of the three main herbs used in the preparation of absinthe, an alcoholic mixture which originated as a medicinal elixir in Switzerland and by the late 19th century was a popular alcoholic drink. The Italian liqueur anisette was derived from it. 

My Italian grandmother used to make anisette a lot, it was one of her favorite Italian liqueurs. For my wedding she made bottles and bottles of it along with strega. Every table had several bottles of each for people to drink. As you might imagine, there were a lot of happy people at my wedding (no matter what side of the Italian family they were on). 😉 I tasted a homemade version of anisette at a friend’s home in Bologna last year. It had a strong black licorice flavor and color, much deeper and richer than I’d had before. I have to say it is the best I’ve ever tasted (sorry grandma).
Back to the fennel! When we tried to buy fennel a few months ago I was surprised that our favorite shop did not have any. We went to several stores and finally gave up.
A few days ago I tried to buy it again. This time I found a marker and price for it on the shelf, but no fennel displayed. This was also the day we were looking for unusual and different vegetables to try (see vegetable post) so we had the produce manager running around a bit. He disappeared before we could ask about the fennel – don’t they always when you have a question?
I think grocery stores should have an app for your phone that you can access in each department to ask questions or have a live chat feature so you can communicate with the people hovering in the back room eating stale donuts and turkey bowling. 
I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to get fennel that day until we reached the checkout. The clerk asked if we found everything we wanted. Did she not know that asking this question would hold up her line for hours? Well, it was maybe five minutes, but felt like hours when she called the produce manager to bring us some fennel. Next it was 20 questions, did we want one frond or two? Did we want just the bulb? No, we wanted the whole thing. Really? was their response in unison.  
A few minutes later the produce manager showed up with a lovely fennel bulb with fronds attached. He told the checker not to charge us, that it was his department’s fault for not getting it on the shelf, and since we were inconvenienced, he was giving it to us for free. Frankly, I think he just wanted us out of the store that day. 
So here is an easy recipe to try using fennel and oranges that you might enjoy. It is nice as a side salad for dinner or a light lunch with soup or sandwich. This recipe is shared from my friend Paola (an excellent Italian cook by the way). 
Fennel and Orange Salad (Insalata di finocchio con arancio)
Serves 4
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  1. 1 1/2 pounds fennel bulbs (about 2 large)
  2. 2 sweet oranges
  3. 2 scallions for garnish
For dressing
  1. 4 tablespoons olive oil
  2. 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  3. Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Drizzle with a flavorful balsamic vinegar (fig infused was good when I made this)
  1. Wash the fennel bulbs and remove any brown or stringy outer leaves.
  2. Slice bulbs and stems into thin pieces. Place in a shallow serving bowl.
  3. Peel the oranges with a sharp knife cutting away the pith.
  4. Chunk slices of orange and mix with the fennel.
  1. Mix the oil and lemon juice together.
  2. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Pour dressing over mixture and mix well.
  1. Slice the white and green parts of the scallion and sprinkle over the salad. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar if you like.
Adapted from from one of her cookbooks
Adapted from from one of her cookbooks
Christina's Food And Travel

Here’s another version of a fennel salad. I found this one from Our Italian Table.


Caramelized Orange Fennel Salad
Serves 2
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  1. • Zest ½ orange
  2. • 1 navel orange
  3. • 1 tablespoon butter
  4. • 1 tablespoon sugar
  5. • Extra virgin olive oil
  6. • 1 medium fennel bulb
  7. • Kosher salt
  8. • Freshly ground black pepper
  1. • Remove the peel and pith from the oranges. Slice crosswise into ½ inch rounds. Remove any seeds from the rounds if you can.
  2. • In a skillet large enough to hold the orange slices in a single layer, melt the butter over medium-low heat until melted and foaming. Sprinkle with the sugar. Turn the heat to medium high. Once the sugar is melted and starts to caramelize (about 3 minutes), lower the heat and add in the orange slices in a single layer. Cook until the orange slice begins to brown, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook on the other side. Gently place the slices on a plate along with any juices.
  3. • Cut the fennel bulb in half lengthwise. Slice each half into ¼ slices lengthwise. Reserve any fronds for garnish.
  4. • Drizzle olive oil in the same skillet to coat bottom (about 1 tablespoon) over medium-high heat. Add in the fennel slices and cook until browed on each side, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  5. • Remove the fennel slices and layer on your serving plate. Add the orange slices on top and drizzle with any juices. Top with freshly ground black pepper, fennel fronds, orange zest and a healthy drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Serve!
Christina's Food And Travel
I have some leftover fennel after making the salad, and was thinking about how I could use it. Should I try making a fennel disgestif (liqueur)? My grandmother might roll over in her grave. Stay tuned!

6 thoughts on “The Fennel Fell In Love With An Orange”

  1. Thank you Christina for the nice comment. I really love Fennel and eat it quite often since my Trader Joes carries it most of the time. I also parboil it in thick slices, drain it and saute it in some toasted butter and top with parmiggiano, when cooked the flavor gets milder. Love your blog. Paola

    1. Thanks for the tip that Trader Joes carries fennel. I didn’t look there – silly me! Cheri will love the other way you cook fennel that you mention. She was just asking me the other day about fixing it with butter and parmiggiano. Thanks again for the recipes!

  2. Loved your post because I bought fennel last night (for a fish dish) and may have enough to try the fennnel salad, which sounds delicious. I love fennel – it is much less licoric-y than you might think and it’s so fresh and delicious.

    1. I agree with you Louise on the subtle flavor of fennel. Tonight I’m trying Paola’s other recommendation of boiling it then frying in a little butter and adding parmesan. I’m also making 2 liqueurs with it – have to wait 6 days before the reveal.

  3. They all sound wonderful. I must go to Trader Joe’s for my favorite tuna fish and I will just add fennel to the list! Thank you guys!

    1. Yes, buy tuna! I have a stuffed avocado recipe coming out in a few days. I mentioned you in that post. Noticed another food blogger posted one that is really similar today so I will wait a few days to send mine out.

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