Fennel looks like an agricultural blunder in three parts, a mutation, if you will. Though Mediterranean in origin, it resembles a Scottish bagpipe. From its bulb-shaped base, as many as six celery-like stalks jut awkwardly outward. Above these, as with a bagpipe’s tassels, fennel’s feathery, dill-looking “leaves” hold sway. This curious organic creation tastes mildly like anise or licorice. Yes. This is also the source of fennel seed and a very highly-prized fennel pollen.
This specimen is not the result of genetic engineering gone astray. As far back as 812 AD, Italy’s King Charlemagne insisted fennel belonged in all imperial gardens. By the 14th century the Romans were dining on salads made from fennel, parsley, sage, garlic, onions, leek, borage, mint, watercress, rue greens and rosemary, served with a simple vinegar and oil dressing. Over in England in the 16th century, Shakespeare wrote of enjoying fish cook with fennel. Later, in the new world, Puritans chewed fennel seeds in church and called them “meeting seed.”
A member of the parsley family, fennel’s enjoying new popularity in this country. Florence or “Finocchio” fennel has a pale, greenish-white base, and overall growth is two feet. Wild fennel has no bulbish base and grows to near six feet high. Every part of each type tastes like sweet anise.
The bulb end has the texture of celery and is used from antipasto to fine desserts. Seeds are actually the dried, ripe fruits of the fennel plant and greenish brown. Fennel blossoms are golden yellow. Now grown in the western U.S., Egyptian fennel is considered the world best for its flavor, size, color and cleanliness. Now, a favorite in India and China, fennel seed is included in Chinese five-spice powder. The French sometimes include fennel seed in Herbes de Provence mixtures.
Fennel pollen is a very blossom-intensive, labor-intensive proposition, making it as expensive as saffron. Still, it receives raves from food professionals who declare it a sensation where the flavor gets mightily magnified. One bulk spice supplier prices it at $4.50 for 1/8, $30.00 per ounce.
Rich in vitamin A, this vegetable has a fair amount of calcium, phosphorus, iron and potassium. Early users treated nervous conditions, poor eyesight, bronchial and digestive problems with fennel. Fennel tea was believed to increase lactation and assist in weight loss. It was used as a breath freshener, as well.
Select firm bulbs with a firm base, not brown and leaves not limp. The whole vegetable, fern, stalks and base should be tightly wrapped in plastic and refrigerated.
TRIPLE FENNEL CREAM SOUP
3 T. oil or butter
1 bunch green onions, chopped
1 bulb fennel bulb, trimmed (reserve sprigs)
2 large carrots, chopped
2 T. fennel seed
1 potato, small, diced
4 cups chicken stock
½ cup heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
- Saute onion, fennel, carrot and most of the fennel seed for 5 minutes.
- Stir in the potato and chicken stock and bring to
- Reduce heat, cover and simmer 20 minutes.
- Puree all or part of the mixture in a blender or processor with cream.
- Gently reheat, re-season with salt and pepper
Garnish with remaining fennel seeds and bits of fennel leaves. Serves 4-6. USES FOR FENNEL BASE OR BULB: Delicious braised, steamed, sautéed, grilled or raw – may be breaded, fried, sautéed or roasted Microwave scored, seasoned bulb drizzled with olive oil for 5 minutes and serve topped with fresh lime juice. Use any place you would use celery Compatible with olive oil, butter, thyme, bay, parsley, fennel seeds, orange, lemon, saffron, Tomatoes, potatoes, olives, garlic, garlic, chili and cumin. Use with parmesan, gruyere, Stilton or goat cheese Salads, (subtle, anise, licorice-like flavor) Make a salad of sliced, raw fennel, lemon, olive oil, blood oranges, pomegranate seeds. Add grated pecorino cheese Use stalks in soups Use “leaves” as you would use the herb dill. USES FOR FENNEL SEED: Make fennel pepper, three parts black pepper corns, 1 part fennel seed in pepper mill. Combine the seeds with chopped calameta olives and sun-dried tomatoes. Seeds good in pizza sauces, meatballs, marinades, cakes, bread, figs, sausage and stews. Crush toasted seeds, work into butter and spread fish before and after broiling, baking or grilling.