Food Focus Article Archive - Fennel

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Fennel - Vegetable, Herb or Spice?


Fr: le fennouil   Ge: der Fenchel   It: il fenoccio  Sp: el hinojo

a fennel bulb

Florence fennel

Though well established in the culinary world, outside of Europe fennel is often a misunderstood and neglected vegetable – or it is one of those, that like the artichoke is prepared on rare occasions only one way because there ended the interest or sense of adventure.   However, it is a plant that is native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean area where wild fennel is often discovered on walks.  


Besides being a vegetable, either wild or cultivated, it is also both a herb and a spice. The tall, woody stalks once dried are often used in French Provincial cooking when grilling meats and it is a mainstay in Italian cooking.  It is also a valuable medicinal plant. 


The wild fennel - which is often confused with dill - does not produce a bulb,  however the tender young stalks and fronds are gathered in spring for inclusion in salads and vegetable dishes or alone as a delicious side dish, chopped and sautéed in butter or olive oil. A Sicilian dish uses finely chopped tender fronds for patties using egg, grated parmesan cheese and bread crumbs and fried in olive oil.  Heavenly.


The feathery, green fronds can be used as dill in flavouring salads and vegetables and especially for seafood dishes where as a vegetable (bulb and chopped greens) it excels as the perfect compliment with salmon. 


The dried seeds are not seeds at all but the fruit of the plant and are used throughout the Mediterranean for soups, stews, sauces and for giving Italian link sausages their distinctive flavour.  The 'seeds" are used from Norway to Asia.   


It is the cultivated bulb, the Florence fennel, that is commonly used for culinary purposes and sometimes its seeds when wild is not available.  Slices of the bulb can be dipped in a parmesan cheese batter and fried or marinated overnight in a vinaigrette for a salad or just as it is, mixed into a salad.  Fennel has a delicate anis flavour.  Outside of France, it is difficult to purchase the dried fennel greens so common in French fish dishes. 


Historic bit

Mentioned in Greek mythology and history, it was known from India to the Near East and all points between.  Its popularity rose during the Medieval Ages when wild fennel was cultivated by the monks and established as an essential plant in medicinal herbal gardens.  'Marathon' is Ancient Greek for fennel and is the root for the Modern Greek name for fennel - 'maratho' .



Fennel is a highly aromatic perennial belonging to the large Apiaceae family as do carrot, parsley, dill and coriander.  The 'bulb' of the cultivated varieties is really the inflated leaf base and appears just above ground.  Wild fennel which can reach almost two meters and does not produce a bulb is Foeniculum vulgare, cultivated fennel or Florence fennel is Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum and the sweet fennel is Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce.


Medicinal Use

Wherever wild fennel grows, its properties as a digestive is appreciated.  The greens, used lavishly when in season serves as a digestive and intestinal tonic. 


Fennel is anti-spasmodic, relieving stomach and intestinal cramps.  The seeds are used in making teas, tinctures for medicinal purposes or for making digestive liquors for sipping after a heavy meal.  Either tea (especially useful for children), tincture (really a kind of liquor without the sugar) or liquor help the uneasy stomach and 'wind'.


Nibbling on a few seeds refreshes the breath. Nibbling on a few teaspoons of the seeds will help the digestion as well.  An excellent essential oil is made from the seeds.


Besides helping to digest fats, it seems to aid to loose weight.  It is unclear if this is due to its mentioned properties or if it helps to naturally curb the appetite.  A cup of tea before and after a meal is not a bad idea.  As an eyewash, cooled tea is helpful for soothing the eyes.


Tea tip:  1-2 teaspoons of the seeds, crushed.  Pour over boiling water, cover and allow to steep 10 minutes.  Do not strain, but eat the seeds at the bottom of the cup.  Recommended dosage is up to 3 cups a day.  A good herbalist or natural health practitioner can give you further advice on this wonderful plant and its uses.


Herbal tip:  cilantro and fennel make for an intriguing flavour combination.  Try it in soups, small soup dumplings, salsa (using the fennel fronds or the bulb).


wild fennel recipe


Following the suggestions and tips, you will find a few select recipes.


Purchasing and Storing

Available year round, but best in late autumn and winter, look for firm, medium bulbs without brown spots or bruises and with some stalk and frond still attached.. If they seem light for their size, they are probably old, a little dried out and have had the telltale spotted and split outer leaves removed.  These will be a little woody.  If you do use larger ones, cut out most of the core. Fennel dries out quickly so store in a container or plastic bag in the refrigerator.  Trim a little off the base before using.




baked - Parboil slices, drain and place in a buttered dish.  Cover with grated parmesan cheese and bake for 15 minutes in a hot oven.


braised - Parboil the whole bulb for 10 minutes.  Remove and cut into thick slices (about 3-4 per bulb lengthways). Brown in butter and garlic until the whole garlic clove takes a little colour.  Add a little water, cover and slowly braise, turning a few times until done - about 40 minutes.  Keep adding small amounts of water so as not to let it burn. The fennel should be lightly brown - allow the liquid to cook down  to a little sauce toward the end of cooking time.


parboiled - Cut in half lengthwise, cut out core and parboil with a lemon slice for 10 min. Bake in hot oven for 20-25 minutes with a sauce.


pasta - Steam or sauté thin slices cooked al dente and serve with a tomato or cheese sauce.


risotto - Use the bulb diced or the young, tender stalks with fronds.  Save the chopped leafy fronds to toss into the rice for the last 5 minutes.


salads - Popular in Germany and Italy where it is also appreciated in salads, it is delicious raw and thinly sliced served with a vinaigrette sauce.  Harmonises well with chicory.


sautéed - Parboil first.


sliced/cut - Slice thickly or thinly into rounds (from the base up) or lengthways.  Cut into dice or wedges.


soup - Use pureed with or without cooked potato, creamed or with other vegetables or cook diced in vegetable broth.


side dish - Especially good with seafood or served with a Gruyère cheese sauce.


tomato - Makes a good marriage with fennel.



Fennel with Ham Casserole


preheat oven at 180°.  Parboil a large fennel as above.  Cook 250 g. of fettuccine, slice thinly 250 g. of ham, grate 250 g. of Gruyère cheese, 200 g. cream, 1 large egg.  Butter a rectangular baking dish,  layer half the noodles, then the fennel, the ham then the cheese.  Repeat, ending with the cheese.  Mix the cream with the egg and season with salt and white pepper.  Pour over the casserole and bake for 30 minutes. Ganish with fennel green.  Serve with a mixed salad.



Fennel Polacka (Polish Style)


4 sm. fennel, 1/4 l. white wine, 4 T. butter, 2 T. bread crumbs, white pepper


Slice the fennel and steam in white wine and a little salt until al dente.  Serve on a warmed platter, melt butter and mix with the crumbs and pepper.  Spoon over fennel.  Garnish with fennel green.



Fennel with Cream and Herbs


Chop one onion, sauté in a little olive oil until softened.  Sprinkle with 1 T. flour and add one sliced, medium fennel .  Add a little vegetable stock to not quite cover.  Cook al dente.  Remove fennel to a warmed dish.Allow the liquid to reduce, add 80 to 100 ml. of cream and 2 T. of fresh chopped herbs such as chive, parsley, lemon thyme, basil.  Pour over fennel and serve.



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  The Epicurean Table   www.epicureantable.com © 2006

Patricia Conant,  columnist and food writer   

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