a test kitchen dossier
Such comfort as do lusty young men feel
When well-apparelled April on the heel
Of limping Winter treads, even such delight
Among fresh fennel buds shall you this night
Inherit at my house.
-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Etymology: From the Latin feniculum, meaning “little hay,” most likely because of its aroma
and resemblance to hay
Area of Origin: The coastal regions of the Mediterranean
Fennel, a member of the parsley family, has a pale green stalk that resembles celery and bright green leaves that resemble dill. It tastes and smells like licorice, and is cultivated mainly in the Mediterranean and the United States as an annual or perennial. Fennel is a healthy plant: it contains vitamin A, calcium, phosphorous, potassium, and even an antioxidant. The best fennel has clean and crisp stems with no browning, and fresh, green leaves.
One of the oldest cultivated plants, fennel was been recognized as a medicinal aid as early as 1500 B.C. Beginning with the ancient Greeks, fennel was used to relieve stomach trouble and reduce inflammation of the respiratory tract. Pliny the Elder, believing that serpents sucked juices from the plant to improve their eyesight, advocated fennel’s ability to help human vision. In many societies all over the world, from the ancient Chinese to modern ones, fennel was and is used as a treatment for cholera, backache, snakebites, headaches, menstrual cramps and even bedwetting. Indeed, fennel was so useful as a medicine that in the 800s, Charlemagne proclaimed that fennel was an essential part of every garden because of its important healing properties.
Throughout the ages, fennel has also been used to control appetite: In Medieval times, people chewed fennel seeds to suppress stomach rumblings while they were at church, and more recently, the Puritans chewed them to keep from becoming too hungry during religious fasts. Fennel also wards off insects, and was often placed in a horse’s harness in order to repel flies. Legend has it that fennel was first used in cooking during in the Medieval period, when Italians, faced with famine, became so hungry that they decided to experiment with the plant.
Types of Fennel
There are two main varieties of fennel: sweet fennel (foeniculum vulgare dulce, or finocchio in Italian) and common or bitter fennel (foeniculum vulgare). Sweet fennel has a thick, bulbous stalk that can be eaten like celery, and is often confused with anise due to its licorice flavor; indeed, in Hindi, Indonesian, Hebrew, Turkish and Romanian languages, among many others, the terms for anise and fennel are usually the same. However, fennel has a sweeter and more delicate flavor than anise. Common fennel is bulbless, and is often cultivated for its seeds, which are oval and greenish-brown and used in a wide variety of recipes.
Cooking with Fennel
Fennel’s base and stem can be treated like a vegetable, eaten raw or cooked. When eaten raw, it offers a fresh, clean taste (it is often used at Italian tables to cleanse the palate after a meal). Fennel is also extremely versatile, and as an aromatic, it can be used to replace ½ the onions in many Mediterranean dishes (before using the stems, remove any strings and cut off the core at the base). The greenery can be used as an herb to enhance flavor, or as a garnish; if the leaves become wilted, place them in an ice water bath. Fennel seeds, used either ground or whole, are used in everything ranging from sweet cookies like New Mexican Christmas Biscochitos to savory sausage seasonings and Chinese five-spice.
Since fennel has a crisp, sharp taste, its best matches are sweet or well-rounded flavors. It is a lovely addition to a mirepoix, as when caramelized its light flavor adds a unique hint of additional depth.
We wanted to play with fennel’s versatility, and we love its punch when combined with vinaigrette in salads. We also love it in combination with oranges and sweet dishes, and we’ve been roasting it, putting it in desserts, and even playing with the pollen.
Note: Some of the dishes below also use anise, which though it has a similar flavor, is different from fennel and/or fennel seeds.
Anise Panna Cotta with Spiced Rhubarb
Apple Anise Pizza
Coffee Spiced Lamb with a Minted Coffee Sauce
Fennel, Orange and Zereshk Salad with Fig Vincotto
Festive Fennel Salad
Lemon-Zested Granny Smith Apple and Fennel Salad
Roasted Fennel with Lavender & Honey Marinade
Dossier by Ava Tramer
Photo by Lia Soscia