Fennel is actually an herb, with yellow flowers and feathery leaves, stalks like celery, and a large, white bulbous base. Related to the parsley family, and most popular in Mediterranean cuisine, it is a highly aromatic and flavorful herb, with culinary and medicinal uses. It is often labeled at the grocery store as Anise, and has a very similar flavor – that of black licorice.
In the kitchen, fennel bulbs and fronds (the green feathery stems and leaves) are used both raw and cooked, in side dishes, salads, pastas, vegetable dishes, and risottos. Fennel seed is a common ingredient in Italian sausages and meatballs.
Medicinal uses boast improvement of the intestinal tract and eyesight. Some people use fennel as a diuretic. And I bet you didn’t know that it is one of the few plants that fleas don’t like. Many kennels and stables use fennel powder to drive away those pesky fleas.
Look for small, heavy, white bulbs that are firm and free of cracks, browning, or moist areas. The stalks should be crisp, with feathery, bright-green fronds. Wrapped in plastic, fennel keeps for just a few days in the refrigerator; the flavor fades as it dries out.
Fennel stalks can take the place of celery in soups and stews for added kick in flavor. Use fronds as a garnish, or chop them and use as you would other herbs, like dill or parsley. Chopped fennel works especially well in Italian tomato sauces, but add it late in the cooking process so the flavor isn’t diluted. I once had mussels in a fennel broth that was to die for, especially when dipping our left over rolls into it.
Try this recipe for roasted fennel, and add to a chicken or pasta dish, or as a side. Discover the flavor offerings, then let your imagination go wild for other uses.
- 2 fennel bulbs (thick base of stalk), stalks cut off, bulbs halved lengthwise, then cut lengthwise in 1-inch thick pieces
- Olive oil
- Balsamic vinegar
Rub just enough olive oil over the fennel to coat. Sprinkle on some balsamic vinegar, also to coat. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Lay out the pieces of fennel and roast for 30-40 minutes, or until the fennel is cooked through and beginning to caramelize.