My love affair with fennel began the way most affairs do.

With curiosity.

What was that big-bulbed, long-armed, wispily-fronded vegetable tucked into the uppermost reaches of the produce aisle? Most of the bulbs were slightly puckered and streaked with brown (a sure sign of age, I came to learn); almost no one working the checkout lane knew what the thing was when I plopped it on their conveyor belts.

“Oh, that’s anise,” someone said. “It tastes like licorice.”

Let’s dispense with those myths right away. Fennel is not anise, and it does not have licorice’s harsh, abrasive, coat-your-mouth flavor. It’s an amazingly versatile vegetable, loaded with vitamin C and folate. Sliced paper thin and dressed with a lemon vinaigrette, it’s a fresh, crisp alternative to a tossed salad. Cut into chunks and roasted, it takes on a gentle, caramel flavor that’s perfect on its own or paired with a medley of root veggies.

I started flirting with fennel by way of a recipe found in an ancient issue of Bon Appetit. This is a perfect way to introduce yourself to the vegetable: Layered with potatoes and cream and baked as a gratin, it’s easy to deny that you’re cooking with anything out of the ordinary.

  1. Thinly slice 2 pounds unpeeled red-skinned or Yukon gold potatoes and 3 fennel bulbs. (Don’t let fennel’s gangliness intimidate you! Just cut off the stalks, halve the bulbs lengthwise and cut out the triangular core at the bottom. If the outer leaves are brownish, discard them.)
  2. Finely chop 1 onion. Then begin layering: Arrange half the fennel slices in a single layer in a greased, 13x9x2-inch casserole dish. Top with half the sliced potatoes; sprinkle with half of the onions, salt, pepper and 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Repeat once more with the rest of the fennel, potatoes and onion, and an additional 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese.
  3. Bring 1 1/2 cups chicken broth and 1 cup whipping cream to a boil in a medium saucepan. Pour the mixture over the gratin. Bake, uncovered, in a 375-degree oven for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until the potatoes and fennel are very tender and the liquid is almost absorbed. Let the dish sit at least 10 minutes before digging in.

Bake this a few times, and fennel will start to lose its mystery. Then you can move away from that surreptitious cloak of cream and broth and begin working the vegetable into your weekly cooking routine.

But take note! As you cut out accompanying ingredients, you must make sure you’re buying the freshest fennel available. Bulbs should be firm and blemish-free; stalks should be crackly crisp; fronds should be bright green. Seek out fennel from farmers’ markets or organic produce stands. (Better yet, grow your own during the early summer months.)

Here are just a few of the ways you can use fennel in your daily cooking:

— Chop a bulb along with an onion and garlic, and use the trio as a base for soup. The fennel adds a slightly sweet note and will temper the harshness of more acidic ingredients like tomatoes.

— Slice a couple of bulbs and saute them in melted butter. Add 1/4 cup water, then cover your pan and braise the bulbs for 8 minutes. Remove the cover, and continue to cook until the fennel turns golden. (Don’t hurry this step … you want to coax out the caramel flavors.) Stir in about a tablespoon more butter and up to 2 tablespoons Pernod or another anisette liqueur. (I like Hiram Walker.) The finished fennel feels like satin in your mouth, and the liqueur adds just a hint of sweetness.

— Cut 2-3 bulbs into large chunks, drizzle them with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast them in a 400-degree oven until soft (about 20 minutes). Roast alone or with potatoes, carrots and parsnips.

— Roast as above, then puree with chicken or vegetable broth. Add a dash of cream for fennel bisque.

— Roast, then pair with boiled russet potatoes. Mash both vegetables with butter, garlic and milk for a creamy, what’s-that-flavor? take on mashed potatoes.

— Thinly slice a couple of bulbs and toss with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper for a refreshing salad. I like to add peeled, sliced oranges (and sometimes pitted kalamata olives) to mine. It’s a delightfully clean-tasting counterpoint to heavy dishes like lasagna.

Fennel and I may have danced around each other for awhile, but it’s a regular presence in my kitchen now. Take the plunge yourself and see how much variety and color it can add to your cooking!