Beautiful Bulbs: Growing and Cooking Fennel and Scallions

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Photo by Barbara Damrosch
Fennel's anise flavor and scallions' allium zing add savor to your table.

Two bulbs, two different flavors: Fennel and scallions come into their own in early summer. Perhaps it’s time you welcomed both, along with their distinctive flavors, into your own garden and kitchen.

Fennel, once considered a gourmet vegetable and used only in certain Mediterranean dishes, has earned a place in contemporary cookery. You can now find fennel bulbs in markets and spot them in home gardens. Fennel’s distinctive flavor is a bit like that of anise, licorice and tarragon, and it comes from compounds they all share.

Types of Fennel

Botanically, fennel is kin to celery, dill, carrots, and other members of the Apiaceae (or Umbelliferae) family — plants that bear umbrella-shaped flower clusters. In fact, one form of fennel, grown as an herb for its leaves, flowers and seeds, is much like dill, with fern-like fronds. Sometimes called “wild fennel,” it’s tall and grows like a weed in areas — notably California — that have Mediterranean climates. Its flowers are a terrific nectar source for beneficial insects.

The other kind of fennel — which also has ferny tops, only shorter — is known as Florence fennel, bulb fennel, cultivated fennel or sweet fennel. It has a white, swollen area near the ground, made up of widened stem bases wrapped tightly around each other in overlapping layers.

Grow and Harvest Fennel

Fennel is often characterized as a fall vegetable, but a hard frost will take it down much earlier than hardier fall crops, such as carrots and kale. At our Maine farm, we’re not content with such a short season, so we treat ourselves to an early summer one as well. You can do the same by setting out transplants as soon as there is no longer danger of frost. Start seeds indoors two to four weeks before your average last frost date.

If planted in spring, sometimes an unexpected cold snap will make fennel bolt (go to seed) before it’s had a chance to form bulbs. This happens because biennial fennel interprets the cold snap as its first winter and the subsequent onset of summer weather as its second spring. The best way to avoid this is to plant a bolt-resistant variety, such as ‘Zefa Fino’ or ‘Montovano.’ (Find sources for both varieties at ourSeed and Plant Finder. — MOTHER) Fertile soil and regular watering will also encourage a good crop.

Harvest anytime after the fennel bulbs start to form, and enjoy them from 2-inch-wide babies to 5-inch-wide giants. The bulbs will turn woody if left in the ground too long. Fennel bulbs will require some trimming in the kitchen, and the outer layer should be removed if it is tough or has brown spots. You may chop off and discard the hollow stems, though I often save a few in the fridge to flavor stocks. The ferns are useful to snip as herbs or as garnish for platters.

How to Prepare Fennel

Fennel’s uses are endless. Slice it and add it to scalloped potatoes or make a gratin with it. Include it in stocks, soups and stews — especially fish stews, such as bouillabaisse. Cooking fennel mellows it, so if you want to restore some of its anise intensity, try adding fennel seeds or anise-flavored liqueurs and spirits, such as Pernod, ouzo, anisette or sambuca.

Bulb fennel can be sliced, chopped or shredded, and then eaten raw in salads or slaws. Individual segments, which are joined by a core at the bottom, can be pulled off and nibbled as crudités, used as scoops for a dip, and even served as a slightly sweet palate cleanser and breath freshener to chew on after a heavy meal. Thomas Jefferson, who grew fennel at Monticello, considered fennel a dessert. Try it topped with goat cheese, drizzled with a little honey.

The bulb’s hard little base could be removed before shredding, but is often useful for holding the layers together, as when it’s sliced thickly top to bottom and then grilled. A brief poaching before grilling will tenderize it. Braising makes the bulb meltingly tender, revealing an almost artichoke-like flavor.

Store fennel in a fridge or root cellar for several weeks, but any longer and it will start to brown. For longer storage, blanch and freeze some for winter use.

Stuff a chicken with the fronds, or moisten them and lay them under fish, meats or vegetables on the grill. You can even strew fennel fronds over the coals to flavor the smoke.

How to Grow Scallions

Scallions are also a crop with more than one season, so learning how to grow scallions is especially useful. You might plant some for harvesting in early summer and fall, and even winter and spring in mild climates. I like ‘Evergreen Hardy White’ for its winter hardiness, and ‘Nabechan,’ a good-tasting Japanese variety that has worked well for us. At our farm in Maine, we can have them by June 1 in a minimally heated greenhouse.

We sow them as multi-plants — that is, a cluster of seeds dropped into a soil block or plug — and then set the plugs 8 inches apart on all sides as transplants. This makes weed prevention easier, because we can scuffle a hoe between the well-spaced clumps, and then harvest each cluster as a nice, tidy bunch.

I prefer scallions that aren’t much more than two months old because the foliage gets coarse as time goes on. But even old plants can be useful in an onion emergency. When I’ve used up the storage onions, the summer ones have yet to come, and there’s no time to go shopping, I find I can have almost a perpetual supply of scallions if I’m willing to stretch my definition of what a scallion is. I can rob an onion bed of young shoots if they’re more or less scallion-sized, and use them the way I would scallion tops. Chopped and sprinkled over any savory dish, they do just what scallions do — brighten its color and flavor. This thinning might even improve the spacing in the onion row. Thinnings from a garlic or shallot row can also play a scallion’s role.

Need more delicate ones? Use some overgrown chives. Finally, in late winter, when the onions in the storeroom start going soft and sending out long green stems, those stems can impersonate scallions as well.

As for the real scallions, you can use them raw for sprinkling or dipping, but don’t neglect them as a cooked vegetable. They don’t need long cooking, are surprising and deeply flavored when roasted or grilled, and of course are a natural in stir-fries and sautés. Scallions make the perfect companion to fennel in the recipe for Braised Fennel at right. Scallions can be frozen, too, but with these wider definitions for scallions up my sleeve, I’ve never felt the need.

Fennel and Scallions Recipes:

Braised Fennel with Scallions Recipe
Caramelized Fennel Antipasto Recipe
Fennel Salad with Oranges Recipe

Garden writer Barbara Damrosch grows fennel, scallions and much more with her husband, Eliot Coleman, at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. Find even more seasonal, simple recipes in her latest book,The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.