Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Fennel

Megan Saynisch is a freelance writer, cook, gardener and the creator of Brooklynfarmhouse.com.

I don’t think I liked fennel until (cough) well into my 30s. I guess it took my palate that long to appreciate the delicate, anise-like flavor fresh fennel and its seeds impart. I eased into fennel eating by using the feathery fronds as a garnish for salads and soup — but it wasn’t until I fell in love and got married that my devotion to fennel really began. My husband’s Italian-American family, originally from Southern Italy (Bari, to be specific) do a lot of wonderful things with fennel and anise (a fennel relative), including cake-like cookies with fennel seeds on Easter and chunks of fresh fennel bulbs to end meals. (And of course, lots of anise-y sambuca with after-dinner coffee.) Their culinary family traditions made me a fennel believer, and I'm so glad I converted.

A Brief History

Fennel is native to the Mediterranean, where wild (a.k.a., “bitter”) fennel still grows. Although exact dates are lost to the sands of time, fennel was likely first cultivated in either Greece or Italy and was used for both medicinal and culinary purposes.  The ancient Greeks and Romans had quite a thing for fennel, eating the seeds, blossoms and the fronds. Pliny The Elder, the ancient Roman author famous for his sweeping encyclopedia, Natural History, mentions fennel numerous times as a treatment for stomachache, to care for the “stings of serpents,” for uterus health and as a treatment for a bunch of other weird ancient Roman maladies.

Florence fennel (also called finocchio or “sweet anise”), the variety eaten as a vegetable, wasn’t developed until the 17th century in Italy. Although many recipes make reference to fennel “root,” it is actually the stalk, swollen into a bulb-like shape at the plant’s base, which is consumed (a similarly common misperception applies to kohlrabi).

Factual Nibbles

  • In Greek mythology, Prometheus brings fire to humans by hiding it in a hollowed-out fennel stem.
  • Fennel is a favorite food of Eastern Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.
  • In some places in the US, fennel has become an invasive species.
  • Try this fun experiment: chew fennel seeds. Take a sip of water. Does the water taste sweet? (Hint: the answer is yes.) That’s because the compound that makes fennel taste anise-y, anethole, is 13 times sweeter than sugar and is not water-soluble.
  • Thomas Jefferson once proclaimed Florence fennel his favorite vegetable.

Cultivation

Fennel is in the Apiaceae (carrot) family, whose members are also pretty delicious — cumin, dill, parsley, celery and cilantro are all relatives. There are a couple of major varieties of fennel: bitter (the wild variety), sweet, bronze and Florence fennel. All but Florence fennel are used primarily for their seeds and fronds, although the stems of most varieties are also edible. Fennel seeds are actually the fruit of the plant — bitter fennel seeds have less anethole than other cultivars of fennel and are used more extensively in Central and Eastern European cooking; they have a less-sweet, more celery seed-like taste. Bronze fennel is grown primarily for its attractive, bronze-colored feathery foliage.

India leads the world in fennel cultivation, followed by China, Syria and Mexico. Most US-grown Florence fennel comes from California and Arizona, although fennel is considered a minor crop here in the US.

Environmental Impact

Fennel’s environmental impact seems quite low, mostly because its relative unpopularity in the US means that it is not grown in an ecologically intensive manner. Fennel does not appear on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, but the crop is susceptible to several different pests and diseases for which a number of different pesticides have been approved in the US. (*Read our vegetable rule of thumb, below.) Check with your local fennel farmer to learn more about his or her growing practices.

Seasonality

Fresh Florence fennel (say that 3 times fast) is a cool-weather crop that usually makes its appearance at the market in the fall. In some places, fennel season lasts through winter and into spring.

Characteristics

Nutrition and Effects on the Body

Fennel bulbs are a good source of vitamin C, manganese and potassium and (like a whole lot of veggies) are really high in fiber. Fennel seeds are high in manganese, iron, calcium and magnesium. In herbal medicine, fennel is used a remedy for menstrual pain, coughs, to strengthen eyesight and for stomach pain. Fennel seed is also used in folk medicine as a carminative (i.e., for flatulence prevention). In addition, the plant’s seed is said to increase the production of breast milk and to help with infant colic, but talk to your pediatrician about that last — there is some evidence that fennel can actually be toxic to babies. Fennel oil can be dangerous in even small doses – in some cases causing seizures and vomiting — and skin contact with the sap can cause photosensitivity. 

What to Look for

Fennel bulbs should be whitish-green, firm and heavy for their size, with no brown or mushy spots. If the feathery green fronds are still attached, they should be sprightly with no signs of wilting or dryness. 

What To Do with It

Storage

Fresh fennel bulbs should be stored in a less-cold part of your refrigerator: like lettuce, exposure to very cold temperatures can cause rupture of the cell membranes — not at all delicious. The bulbs will keep in the fridge for up to a week wrapped in a paper towel; any longer and you run the risk of tough fennel. The fronds can be wrapped in damp paper towels and stored in the refrigerator, but they tend to wilt or dry out within a day or two. Fennel seeds should be stored in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.

Cooking

Fennel is a remarkably versatile plant to cook with, because so much of the plant can be eaten. Natural pairings with fennel are fish and shellfish, citrus, strong cheeses like Parmesan and Gorgonzola, tomatoes, pork and chicken. Fennel pollen is a delicacy in Italy and also increasingly in the US — try sprinkling seared or grilled fish fillets with it. (n.b., fennel pollen is pretty pricy, though its easy to harvest your own if you have access to a plant.) Fennel bulbs can be eaten raw, roasted, braisedfried, grilled and even candied. Cooking tends to diminish the anise flavor of the vegetable. Fennel stems can be added to stock or soups to add their distinctive flavor (use sparingly!), or try tossing a few stems on the coals when grilling fish. Fennel fronds are beautiful as a garnish, delicious stuffed inside the cavity of a whole fish, and are a classic component of the French fish stew, bouillabaisse.

Fennel seed is just as flexible. It is one of the spices in Chinese five-spice powder and is an important spice in India, where it is frequently used in savory dishes and chewed after a meal as a breath freshener. Pork and fennel seeds are delicious bedfellows — the seeds are often a key seasoning in Italian pork sausages and taste great with pork loin and other pork cuts. (Check out this delightful-sounding ancient Roman recipe for pork loin stuffed with fennel seeds, which would not be out of place on a modern menu.) Fennel seeds are also used in many baked goods, especially those of Southern Italian origin.

Here is a heap of other fennel recipes, including a fennel gratin and fennel with pasta.

Pro Tips

To prepare Florence fennel, first trim off stalks and compost or save for another use. Trim root end slightly and peel off the outer layer of the bulb. Cut fennel bulb in half (long ways) through the middle of the root. You then can then slice the halves either horizontally or vertically, or cut into quarters through the root. The core of very big fennel bulbs may be a bit tough; smaller ones tend to be more tender.

Recipe

Shaved Fennel Salad with Radishes, Oranges & Mint

This super easy and refreshing salad is best made with a mandoline (I use a cheapo Japanese one), but barring that you can simply slice the fennel and radishes by hand with a very sharp knife. The only slightly tricky part is cutting the orange segments (or “suprêmes” in fancy French cooking lingo) — but here’s handy video instruction that shows you how to do it. (It’s easy. Promise. And a good technique to have under your belt.) I usually cut the segments over a bowl to capture the juice. If you have fennel fronds, they look lovely sprinkled over the top of the salad along with the mint.

Ingredients:

1 medium bulb Florence fennel, outer leaves discarded
1 radish
1 orange, cut into segments, any juice reserved (see above)
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
10-12 small mint leaves, washed and patted dry
12 teaspoon fennel seeds (optional)
Fennel fronds (optional)

Method:

  1. Rinse the fennel bulb under cold running water. Trim the root end, and then cut the bulb long ways through the middle of the root. Using a mandoline or a very sharp knife, cut the fennel long ways into thin slices.
  2. Cut the root ends off the radishes. Slice the radishes into thin disks.
  3. On a platter, arrange the slices of fennel. Top with slices of radishes and the orange segments. Drizzle with reserved orange juice and the extra virgin olive oil, and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Scatter with mint, fennel seeds and fennel fronds.

Serves 4.

Stretching Your Fresh Food Dollar Though Preservation

Fennel is a great candidate for preserving — check out these fennel stem pickles and these Meyer lemon and fennel pickles. You can also easily dry your own seeds if you have access to a fennel plant, and fennel fronds can be frozen in ice-cube trays to use well past fennel season.

(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them — agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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