Fennel is a vegetable that originated in the Mediterranean but now grows all over the world in coastal regions. It has long stalks with feathery dill-like leaves on top and the stems thicken into a large white bulb at the bottom. The yellow flowers of fennel grow in clusters at the top of the stalks and produce pollen that's used as a spice. Almost every part of the plant is eaten, including the bulb, stems, leaves seed, and flowers.
What's it taste like?
Every part of the fennel plant has an anise flavour (like licorice) due to the compound anethole that they both share. While the bulbs are eaten raw in salads, sauteing or roasting them diminishes the intensity of the anise flavour and they become quite sweet.
Where do I get it?
Because the plants are very hardy, they can be found almost anywhere in the world. If you're buying it at a store, look for tight small to medium sized bulbs that are white and very firm with satiny smooth skin. They should still have the stalks and leaves attached which should be vibrant green without any evidence of wilting or drying.
When is it best?
It's available all year long, including the colder months because the plant is resistant to frost.
How do I use it?
The bulb can be sliced thin and turned into a salad. Because it has a slightly citrusy taste, it pairs well with oranges and lemons. It can also be sauteed or battered and deep fried which brings out the sweetness in the bulb. Fennel bulbs also make a wonderful addition to braised meat dishes and soups. The stems can be tough but make a good addition to soups and stews, while the leaves can be used as an herb. The seeds also make a good addition to soups and stews, but can also be added to breads and are one the characteristic ingredients in Italian sausage.
Fennel is a nutrient rich food and is an excellent source of Vitamin C, Fiber, Potassium, Manganese, and Folate along with almost 100 other nutrients. It's also used in traditional medicine as an anti-inflammatory and as a stimulant.