Fennel is a versatile vegetable that plays an important role in the food culture of many European nations, especially in France and Italy. Its esteemed reputation dates back to the earliest times and is reflected in its mythological traditions. Greek myths state that fennel was not only closely associated with Dionysus, the Greek god of food and wine, but that a fennel stalk carried the coal that passed down knowledge from the gods to men.
Fennel is composed of a white or pale green bulb from which closely superimposed stalks are arranged. The stalks are topped with feathery green leaves near which flowers grow and produce fennel seeds. The bulb, stalk, leaves, and seeds are all edible. Fennel belongs to the Umbellifereae family and is therefore closely related to parsley, carrots, dill, and coriander.
Fennel's aromatic taste is unique, strikingly reminiscent of licorice and anise, so much so that fennel is often mistakenly referred to as anise in the marketplace. Fennel's texture is similar to that of celery, having a crunchy and striated texture.
Fennel is a good source of Vitamin C, potassium, and dietary fiber.
Good-quality fennel will have bulbs that are clean, firm and solid, without signs of splitting, bruising or spotting. The bulbs should be whitish or pale green in color. The stalks should be relatively straight and closely superimposed around the bulb and should not splay out to the sides too much. Both the stalks and the leaves should be green in color. There should be no signs of flowering buds as this indicates that the vegetable is past maturity. Fresh fennel should have a fragrant aroma, smelling subtly of licorice or anise. Fennel is usually available from autumn through early spring.
Although you can store fresh fennel in the refrigerator crisper, where it should stay fresh for about four days, it is best to consume fennel soon after purchase since as it ages, it tends to gradually lose its flavor. While fresh fennel can be frozen after first being blanched, it seems to lose much of its flavor during this process.
The three different parts of fennel—the base, stalks, and leaves—can all be used in cooking. Cut the stalks away from the bulb at the place where they meet. If you are not going to be using the intact bulb in a recipe, then first cut it in half, remove the base, and then rinse it with water before proceeding to cut it further. Fennel can be cut in a variety of sizes and shapes, depending upon the recipe and your personal preference. The best way to slice it is to do so vertically through the bulb. If your recipe requires chunked, diced or julienned fennel, it is best to first remove the harder core that resides in the center before cutting it. The stalks of the fennel can be used for soups, stocks and stews, while the leaves can be used as an herb seasoning.
A Few Quick Serving Ideas:
Sautéed fennel and onions make a wonderful side dish.
Combine sliced fennel with avocados, and oranges for a delightful salad.
Braised fennel is a wonderful complement to scallops.
Next time you are looking for a new way to adorn your sandwiches, consider adding sliced fennel in addition to the traditional toppings of lettuce and tomato.
Top thinly sliced fennel with plain yogurt and mint leaves.