Fennel is an interesting vegetable and a fairly new discovery of mine. For a long time I assumed that fennel was from the plant that produces fennel seeds. Not until fennel started showing up as a vegetable in cooking magazines did I get curious to do some research on fennel. This is what I found out. Fennel is a flowering plant closely related to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander. There are two types of fennel. One is treated as a spice (Foeniculum vulgare) and the other one (Florence fennel or Finocchio) is treated like a bulb – this is what’s used as a vegetable. Foeniculum vulgare fennel grows 3-5 feet tall with fine textured foliage resembling dill with flat topped clusters of yellow flowers. The stems, leaves and seeds of this type of fennel are harvested and used as a spice. On the other hand, Florence fennel is the more popular type of fennel and is grown for use as a vegetable. This is the fennel bulb that is widely available nowadays at the grocery stores and is sometimes called fresh anise.
Fennel is native to the Mediterranean region and is one of Italy’s most popular vegetables. Like all vegetables fennel too has plenty of health benefits. One cup of fennel contains almost 20 percent of recommended daily value of vitamin C, iron, fiber, and potassium. In America most of the fennel is grown in California.
Many celebrity chefs describe the fennel bulb as having an anise flavor, but personally I think it has more of a fresh minty flavor with an herby edge. In fact, the main reason the fennel vegetable is called fennel is because it smells and tastes like fresh minty fennel seeds. So just remember, if using the fennel bulb treat it as a vegetable like celery or carrot. The fennel seeds on the other hand are used as a spice. When cooking with fennel all parts of the fennel bulb are edible – bulb, stalk, and leaves. Depending on the recipe, you may find you use some or all parts of the fennel.
My first taste of the fennel bulb was when my sister Banu made a baked fennel dish when she was visiting me here in California. The fennel bake was made with tomatoes, garlic and butter until the fennel was caramelized and tender. I really didn’t know what to expect, but when I tried it the baked fennel was positively delicious. Banu recommended having the tender fennel with toasted baguette. Thinking about it made want to make it again recently and I asked her for the recipe. Here is the link Olive oil roasted fennel, tomatoes with white beans on bonapettit.com.
The second time I had fennel was at my friend Shalini’s home when she made roasted vegetables as an appetizer and fennel was one of the veggies. She had roasted fennel slices with olive oil and fresh garlic rub until the fennel was tender. This fennel tasted divine! Fennel can also be used raw just as my friend Rose does so often in her scrumptious salads. Whether you bake, broil, or eat fennel raw; fennel adds a fresh unexpected flavor to soups, stews, and salads. Now that I have shared a little about fennel, let me share a few fennel recipes.