There are few vegetables that are as closely identified with Southern California's sunny winters as fennel. In some areas, in fact, it's almost impossible to avoid — you can even find it sprouting in sidewalk cracks. The hillsides in Palos Verdes, of course, are covered in the stuff.
Wild fennel is perfect for harvesting seed — or, if you have infinite patience, pollen — but the bases themselves are usually too tough and stringy to make good eating. Fennel bulb takes some careful tending to be at its best, and you're better off getting it at the market than relying on nature.
But when you get a good bulb, it really is one of the best winter vegetables you can find. You can use it raw, when it's crisp and bracing, or braise it: The texture turns melting and the flavor turns sweet. Either way, its licorice flavor is a perfect complement to pork, poultry and all kinds of seafood.
Make a quick winter salad by shaving fennel thin and dressing it with very good olive oil, lemon juice and some minced chives. Or braise fennel in a tightly covered saucepan with just a little bit of water, some olive oil and a couple of cloves of garlic (a generous dusting with Parmigiano-Reggiano would not be out of place).
Want more? Here are a dozen recipes to get you started.
How to choose: Look for fennel with fresh-looking greens on long branches. (As the fennel sits, the greens wilt and grocery managers trim them.) The bulbs should be bright white with no discolorations or soft spots.
How to store: Keep in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed plastic bag. You may need to double-bag in order to cover the fronds.