Real Food Encyclopedia | Fennel
Fennel, the versatile vegetable that has a lovely licorice-like taste, is native to the Mediterranean, where wild (a.k.a., “bitter”) fennel still grows. Although exact dates are lost, 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.
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 refer to fennel “root,” it is actually the stalk, swollen into a bulb-like shape at the plant’s base, which is consumed.
Fun Facts about Fennel:
- 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 ancient Roman maladies.
- In some places in the US, fennel has become an invasive species.
- Thomas Jefferson once proclaimed Florence fennel his favorite vegetable.
What to Look for When Buying Fennel
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.
Sustainability of Fennel
Pesticides and Fennel
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. Check with your local fennel farmer to learn more about his or her growing practices.
Fresh Florence fennel 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.
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.
Fresh fennel bulbs should be stored in a less-cold part of your refrigerator: 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 with Fennel
Pro tip: 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.
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. Fennel bulbs can be eaten raw, roasted, braised, caramelized, 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.
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. Fennel fronds can be frozen in ice-cube trays to use well past fennel season.
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).