Derived from the latin word for "fragrant hay", foeniculum, the name fennel is evocative of both the plant's licorice-y flavor and its tendency to propagate easily from seed which no doubt accounts for its appearance on roadsides the world over. I have personally seen them sprouting in Southern California, Australia, and most recently right down the road from where I now live, where a large thatch grows even though we're often below the reported life zone of 4 to 27 degrees centigrade. Perhaps the rather continous parade of canine passersby keeps the plant a bit warmer?
Native to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, fennel belongs to the umbellifereae family and is closely related to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander (cilantro). Per Wikipedia, in Ancient Greece fennel was called 'marathon', and hence the Grecian place name Marathon which was the site of the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. Students of mythology might remember that Prometheus used the stalk of a fennel plant to steal fire from the gods.
North American grocers often label it as 'anise', but this is erroneous. They are not the same, nor interchangeable though anise too has a licorice flavor. As a fresh vegetable, it is typically at its best from autumn to early spring. The feathery yellow flowers produce the "fruit" known as fennel seed, which provide not only a valued seasoning for cooks like us, but are also a source of oil and oleoresin for use in soaps, perfumes and liqueurs.
Nutritionally, 1 cup of raw fennel contains just 26 calories and yet can satisfy about 17% of your daily requirement of Vitamin C. It will also satisfy about 10% of your daily requirement for dietary fiber, potassium and manganese.
Medicinally, Chinese herbal medicine includes the use of fennel for gastroenteritis, hernia, indigestion, abdominal pain and to stimulate milk production in breastfeeding mothers. It gets its primary flavor from anethole (as do anise and star anise), which is used pharmacologically as an antispasmodic treatment. Of mild interest to wine lovers (after all, that's why we're all here, isn't it?) the oil has also been reported to stiumulate liver regeneration in rats.
Fennel is one of the three main herbs used in the making of Absinthe, an alcoholic mixture believed in the 1800s to have extra potent psychoactive properties which led to it's being banned in most parts of the world by the 1940's. (In recent times those laws have generally been relaxed, though after tasting my first Absinthe at my friend Mary Michelutti's house just two weeks ago, I am loathe to explain why.
In modern times, fennel and its seed are staples in many cultures. Items as diverse as Chinese five spice powder, Italian sausage, and Bengali curry all rely heavily on the seed. The bulb can be used in a multitude of ways whether raw, lightly cooked, roasted or braised.
Fortunately, restaurant chefs love to use fennel and my three favorite fennel preps were first experienced that way. At a little cafe in Half Moon Bay, California, I discovered that raw fennel, slivered cooked green beans, kalamata olives and a few leaves of arugula belong together in salad. That was my first encounter with raw fennel, and it was love at first bite. Not far from there at Oliveto restaurant in Oakland, I had a pasta dish sauced with a ragu of smoked pork and fennel that gave me an ongoing reason to freeze the stalks I used to trim off and throw away--to this day, I've not had a more unique red sauce for pasta, and I make my own copycat version of it frequently. And last year, at Christina's on Orcas Island here in the San Juan Islands, a fennel risotto served under a chicken breast filet made fennel risotto a staple here at Chez Jenise (most often with mild grilled fish) since--I can't get enough of it.
As always, IOTM is a way of generating friendly discussion about the way in which we use an ingredient. It is also hoped that everyone who reads this post will be inspired to seek out a new recipe involving fennel. Those who do, please report back.
What are your favorite uses for fennel?