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Fennel & Broccoletti: Italian Stallions

Updated on May 31, 2010

Fennel looks like celery that swallowed a baseball. Cooked and uncooked, it has a texture similar to celery, but it has a distinctive licorice-like flavor all its own. It also has an illustrious history going back to the Babylonians, and it plays a part in almost every European cuisine.

The Italian word for fennel is finocchio, meaning fine eye. For centuries, it was thought to have vision-sharpening qualities. But eyesight is only one of many things long believed to be improved by fennel. It was also supposed to improve digestion, fight bacteria, and suppress coughs and asthma. Modern science hasn't confirmed any of these claims, but fennel still tastes good and, hey, it can't hurt.

Select fennel with shiny, fresh-looking fronds. If the stalks have been cut off - as is usually the case - the cut places shouldn't be dry, a sure sign it's been sitting around a while.

Although fennel stalks are edible, they're often woody and tough, and best saved for making stock. Cut them off the bulb, along with the base and any tough outer layers on the bulb itself.

  • Add fennel to any kind of seafood soup or chowder, particularly if it's tomato-based.
  • Use fennel instead of celery (or in addition to celery) in poultry stuffing.
  • Roast fennel with beets and red onions, and toss in some olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
  • Make a sauce for linguini with fresh tomatoes, fennel, and some Pernod (or other anise liqueur).
  • Fennel is a great ingredient for comfort food - put it in your turkey hash or chicken pot pie.
  • Combine finely chopped fennel and sweet onion with a citrus vinaigrette, and serve with tuna, salmon, or halibut.
  • Make a salad of endive, thinly sliced fennel, and shaved Parmesan.
  • Use fennel in a simple risotto with scallops, onions, garlic, and white wine.
  • And save the fennel fronds - they're a wonderful garnish.

Broccoletti di Rape: Pronounced Rap-eh!

It's always been a staple of Italian cooking, but in this country, until recently, you were more likely to find broccoli rabe used as animal fodder than served with dinner. But times and tastes change, and broccoli rabe is now comfortably ensconced on American menus - albeit with different spellings and pronunciations.

You'll see it as broccoli rabe, rape, or raab. You may also find it under its Italian moniker, broccoletti di rape. You'll hear it pronounced a variety of ways, but it always starts with an "r" and has a "p" or a "b" in it; I say "rap-eh." If you see something called "rapini," it's probably the same thing, although some experts claim there's a difference.

By any name, it's a cruciferous vegetable that's related to both turnips and cabbage. Those two families conspired to produce a green vegetable with one of the strongest flavors in the produce aisle. It's bitter, pungent, and makes its presence known. Basic broccoli rabe preparation is easy - it can be boiled, steamed, braised, or sautéed. Boiling and steaming are straightforward; treat broccoli rabe like any other vegetable. If you choose to sauté it, start with some chopped garlic and add the broccoli rabe when you can smell the garlic cooking.

My favorite method is braising. Start as you would to sauté it, with a little olive oil and some chopped garlic, onion, or shallot. Add the broccoli rabe, cook for a minute or so, and then add about 1/4 cup of stock, wine, or water. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the broccoli rabe is tender. For a change, try sesame oil and ginger instead of olive oil.

Cooking time will vary depending on the size of your broccoli rabe (and whether you've cut it in pieces) and how tender you prefer it. I like broccoli rabe softer than most other vegetables, so boiling takes 5 to 6 minutes, steaming or braising 8 to 10, and sautéing about 10.

Broccoli rabe combines well with other strong flavors like sausage, Parmesan cheese, or bacon. Use it in risotto or pasta, or just let it stand on its own as a side dish.

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