Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), that crunchy, white bulbous plant with green stalks and feathery fronds is a tasty delight. But did you know it played a major transport role in Greek mythology? Prometheus wanted to give humans a special gift. So he stole lightning from top Olympian god Zeus and smuggled the gift of fire to mankind…in a fennel stalk. Greek mythology also claims that knowledge was transported from the gods to humans the very same way.
Fennel, also known as “Florence fennel,” is of the Umbellifereae family (parsley, carrots, dill and coriander). Its bulb, about 2-in. in diameter, looks like a white onion on steroids. Green stalks rise out of the bulb and are topped by delicate fronds. Biting into a fresh fennel bulb is cool to the tongue, fibrous and crunchy in texture, similar to celery. It has a subtle, licorice-like aroma which fades on cooking. It is not to be confused with anise, which is a different plant with a highly pungent licorice aroma.
Since ancient times, fennel has been grown throughout Europe mainly in regions near the Mediterranean Sea and Near East. It continues to play prominent role in the food cultures of many European countries, particularly in France and Italy. One favorite dish of Sicilians, for instance, is pasta con sarde e finocchio (Pron: feen-oh-key-oh) — pasta with sardines (fresh), fennel, pignoli nuts, raisins and fresh tomatoes. California-grown fennel supplies U.S. markets.
Buying & Storing
Fennel, often mislabeled as “fresh anise,” is available in markets from autumn until early spring. Choose compact bulbs that are white or pale green in color, firm to the touch and free of spots or bruises. Stalks should be firm, green and straight, leaning only slightly to the sides. (However, do not expect to find fire or knowledge within.) Avoid bulbs with flowering buds, a sign the plant is past maturity.
The best time to enjoy fennel is when it is fresh — its delicate flavor fades with age. When storing, remove foliage 1-2 in. from the bulb, put in produce bag and store in refrigerator crisper, where it will keep for about four-five days.
Preparing & Cooking
General preparation for cooking: Peel off outer layers of bulb, rinse bulb and the trimmed stalks under cool water. Set aside fronds. Set bulb upright and cut in half. Lay cut side down and cut in two. Remove core. If cutting, lay bulb on side and slice according to recipe. Prepare fronds and chop or slice the stalks per recipe.
Every part of the plant is edible and may be prepared in many ways–braised, sautéed, roasted, broiled, baked, caramelized, grilled–and used in soups, roasts, pasta, salads, or as a side dish. The bulb is the most often used part, fresh or cooked. The stalks are usually cooked or chopped with other vegetables; and the fronds can be cooked or used as a garnish.
Fennel goes well with fatty fish, especially salmon, and sardines and enhances the flavor of cured meats. It compliments foods common to Mediterranean cuisine, including onion, olives, garlic, lemon, fruit (oranges and apples), walnuts, avocados, and olives.
Fennel has zero cholesterol, provides a good amount of fiber (4.6 grams per 2 tablespoons), Vitamin C (20% of the minimum daily requirement), folate (a B vitamin), potassium (360 mg.) and magnesium. It is believed to reduce inflammation and the risk of cancer, lower blood pressure, as well as treat anemia, digestive and respiratory disorders.
Frances Fiorino, a journalist based in Washington, D.C., has worked for Conde Nast, Time, and McGraw-Hill. Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., she delighted in helping her Sicilian father nuture three beloved fig trees – not to mention eating the bounty.