Funny thing is that I always loved fennel seeds in Italian sausage, but that still didn't sway me. Seeds and plant parts don't always taste like each other - like coriander and cilantro - so I wasn't convinced that fennel bulbs would ever be my food friend.
I don't know what it was that made me pick up a fennel bulb one day at the grocery store. Maybe it was that they look so pretty with the bright white bulbs and the feathery fronds. If celery and onion and dill had a matter transporter accident, the result might look a lot like fennel.
Once I had the fennel home, I had to deal with it. The green part is almost useless (unless you want to put it in soup stock) although some people peel off the tough outer layers and eat what's left. The feathery fronds make a nice fresh garnish but don't add a whole lot of flavor. What you're after is the white bulb. There's a core in the center - like a cabbage - that can be a bit tough, so that's often trimmed off.
My first adventure with fennel was sliced and cooked and the result was much better than I expected. Like onions, the harshness - and in this case the licoriceness - was muted and the flavor was sweet. Okay, I'm a convert.
But why stop at cooking? Fennel makes a great quick pickle, perfect for dressing up sandwiches, slaws, or as a garnish for other dishes. Perfect for picnics, and a great conversation starter. It stays crunchy after pickling, and the licorice flavor gets subdued, so it pairs well with most foods. (Try it on a hot dog!)
If you don't have enough fennel, add some onion or fine shreds of carrot for color. Thinly sliced bell peppers would make a nice accent, as well.
For this recipe, I used a white balsamic vinegar, but you can use what you like. This isn't a canned pickle, so you don't need to worry about the preservative qualities of the vinegar - just the taste. Keep in mind that a colored vinegar will color the fennel. The white balsamic turned my fennel a pretty golden color. Red wine vinegar would be interesting, as well.
1/3 cup vinegar
2/3 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Trim the fennel, quarter it, remove the core, and slice thinly. Place it in a non-reactive container or a canning jar. The fennel I had fit perfectly into a 1-pint canning jar.
Combine the vinegar, water, salt, and sugar. Give it a taste, if you like. This is how tart your pickles will be, so you can add more sugar if you like, or add more vinegar or water to change the ratio. Since these aren't meant for long-term storage, the acidity level isn't critical, so you can adjust the flavor the way you like it.
Heat the liquid to boiling. Pour it over the fennel. If you don't have enough liquid to cover the vegetable, you can add more hot water or vinegar. Cover the container and let it cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.
These are ready to eat as soon as they are chilled, but I prefer them after a day or two.