According to Greek legend, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and delivered it to human beings in a hollow stalk of fennel. Medieval monks cultivated the plant for its medicinal properties. Today, this storied vegetable brings great flavor and nutrition to your table.
Fennel is native to the Mediterranean and southwest Asia and is related to carrots, coriander, dill and parsley. Fennel seeds, known for their licorice-like flavor, are used as a spice. Florence fennel, or finocchio — with its white or pale-green bulbous base, light green stalks, and feathery foliage — is eaten as a vegetable and herb. Commonly mislabeled “anise” or “sweet anise” because of its aroma, Florence fennel has a more delicate flavor than anise, which becomes even lighter when cooked.
The entire plant is edible. The bulb, stalks and leaves are eaten as vegetables; the foliage, which tastes citrusy, can be used as a fragrant garnish. When purchasing, look for crisp bulbs, firm stalks and colorful greenery. If there are flowering buds on the fronds, the vegetable is past maturity.
Long cultivated as a medicinal plant for its digestive properties, fennel gets its flavor from anethole, a phytonutrient compound that has been shown in studies to reduce inflammation and prevent cancer. Fennel also delivers a strong antioxidant punch, thanks to a combination of other phytonutrients, including kaempferol glycosides and the flavonoids rutin and quercetin. Fennel is an excellent source of vitamin C, which supports the immune system, and a variety of minerals. It’s also high in fiber, which enhances colon health.
- The fennel bulb can be used raw and julienned in salads, or sliced and included on a vegetable hors d’oeuvre tray.
- Roasted fennel makes a great side dish for roasted chicken, fish, lamb or pork, or in soups and stews. To roast, preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Place 1/4-inch sliced fennel on baking sheet and lightly coat with olive oil. Roast for 15 minutes, stir and continue roasting another 15 minutes until lightly browned and softened.
- Fennel stems can be finely chopped and used in soups, stocks and stews.
- Chop fennel fronds and use as a fresh herb in salads, marinades and dips.
- To add a subtle flavor to grilled items, mix olive oil, chopped fresh fennel fronds, and salt and pepper, then
coat grilled meat, tofu, tempeh or vegetables with the mixture using additional fennel fronds as a brush.
- To prepare fennel, cut off stems at the crown of the bulb. Slice off the base of the fennel bulb about 1/4-inch from bottom. Cut the fennel in half and rinse well. Remove the hard core in the center of the bulb before continuing to slice.
- Store fresh fennel in the refrigerator crisper, where it should keep for about four days. Fronds should be gently wrapped in a paper towel and stored in a Ziplock bag, also in the vegetable crisper.
- Dried fennel seeds should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry location, where they will keep for about six months. Storing fennel seeds in the refrigerator will help to keep them fresh longer.
Chef Cary Neff is the president of the consulting firm Culinary Innovations and the author of the New York Times bestseller Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002).