Many people may have tasted fennel only in a link of good Italian sausage. Around the world, it is well loved by cooks from Italy to India to China, even if it is an under-appreciated wallflower here in the States.
Fennel is no wallflower in the garden. Cultivation instructions strictly advise against planting fennel too close to its feathery leafed cousin, dill, because the two will easily cross-pollinate. Personally, I’m tempted to see what would happen.
You could say that fennel seed has a mild anise flavor and scent, mingled with an earthier, sweet tone that reminds me a little of chamomile. If chewed by themselves, they are surprisingly sweet, due to the fact that they are in fact considerably sweeter than sugar, ounce for ounce.
Native to the Mediterranean, fennel seeds (Foeniculum vulgare) have a long standing reputation as mother’s best friend. Steeped in hot water, fennel tea is believed to increase breast milk. It’s also often included in colic remedies for infants, in blends with the endearingly called “Gripe Water.”
Besides merely dispelling tummy bubbles, fennel seed has been the more serious subject of anti-cancer research. A study conducted at the University of Texas- Austin has recently indicated that one of the primary phytochemicals in fennel, anethole, may possess the impressive ability to shut down the growth of cancer cells. It also appears to protect the liver from toxic exposure to chemicals. Seems like a great reason to toss some of the little striped seeds into your soup.
Fennel has also been grown as a vegetable since the time of the Romans, who especially enjoyed the shoots in springtime. It might be one of those odd things you pass by in the market, because you have no idea what you’d do with it. I had a complete stranger come up and ask me last weekend as I was picking some out in the produce aisle.
White, with swerving lines and a sophisticated, curved shape, fennel usually retains some of its green shoots and feathery leaves after harvest. It has a mild, sweet anise scent. I like to slice them thinly and saute in olive oil with red bell peppers and onions, to toss on homemade pizza, or braised into a long-simmered ratatouille, where its flavor merges and marries with tomatoes, onions, garlic, eggplant, and peppers.
It makes a nice cream sauce for chicken or fish, and can be diced raw into salads. One of my favorite spots for fennel bulb, however, is in split pea soup. Its presence is subtle, but enhancing, and for those sensitive to beans and peas, fennel makes pea soup more easily digestible.
I almost always find myself doctoring jars of spaghetti sauce with a handful of fennel seeds, where it contributes a much needed lift along with a generous twist of freshly milled black pepper.
Blended with other herbs in hot tea, fennel’s amicable sweetness can make its bitter companions more palatable. Maybe we could all learn to be more like fennel.