Once you start buying fennel, you won't be able to stop.
I first discovered fennel when I lived in Sardinia for a year at age 16. I was an exchange student, and my host family's dietary habits were foreign and fascinating. The father would set out of a place of thinly sliced fennel with every lunch; it was his 'palate cleanser' after the heavy pasta and meat courses and prior to the cheese/dessert course.
I tried it and felt ambivalent, the way I do about celery. It seemed tasteless, bland, boring – not enough wetness to make it refreshing like a pepper, not enough crunch to make it fun like a carrot, just enough anise flavor to turn me off. But as the year wore on and I suffered from lack of fresh vegetables in the rest of my diet, I started reaching for it more often and grew to love it.Back home in Canada and many years later, fennel has become a weekly grocery staple during the winter months. I avoid buying imported lettuce at this time of year, so I resort to making chopped vegetable salads to accompany family meals. These are a colorful mélange of whatever's on hand, usually radishes, bell peppers, cucumber, avocado, cilantro, celery, and always fennel, and my kids can't get enough of it.
The more I've handled fennel, the more I've come to realize just what a special vegetable it is. First, it transforms with cooking, namely roasting. Of course all vegetables do, but there's something about fennel's roasted form that is utterly decadent. It becomes deeply sweet and caramelized, adding flavor and body to any pan of roasted vegetables. I mix it in with chunks of squash, zucchini, or potato, and roast until golden.
Second, it is so easy to prepare. With no seeds or tough peel, it's far quicker to prepare than most other vegetables in the fridge. Fennel requires a good wash, then you cut off the base and fronds, cut out the small woody core, and then you're ready to dice or slice, depending on what you're doing. It's as easy as preparing a cucumber – a nice change after battling seedy, armoured winter squashes and the like.
I asked my sister, cook extraordinaire, for some ideas on how to use fennel and she threw out a string of rapid text messages in response: "Fennel and orange salad. Fennel-cauliflower-pear soup. Fennel fritters. Caramelized fennel confit. Braised fennel. Fennel and sausage pasta. Fennel and Parmesan gratin." Some of these are fancier than I'd attempt on a typical weeknight, but the point is, you've got a culinary chameleon on your hands if there's fennel in the fridge.
If you haven't tried fennel before, I urge you to buy a bulb the next time you're in the grocery store. Don't be intimidated by the alien-looking stalks; these are edible but stringy, and best tossed in a stock. The feathery fronds can be minced and added to salads for visual appeal.