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Fennel is an umbelliferous, perennial, aromatic plant indigenous to the Mediterranean and southwest Asia that grows to a height of 4-5 feet. It was savored by the ancient Greeks and was spread throughout Europe by the Romans. It has been utilized throughout history to treat an assortment of physical maladies. It was also relied upon in medieval times to keep witches at bay. Perhaps this is how fennel pollen, an expensive spice still popular in Italy, came to be known as the “Spice of Angels.”
Fennel is cultivated throughout the Mediterranean and the United States and is available fall through spring. Virtually all American fennel comes from California. There are two main varieties of fennel; Florence fennel, which is the type inevitably encountered in supermarkets, and Common fennel, from which fennel seeds are harvested. Fennel also grows wild and the feral variety is stronger than its farmed counterpart. Basically, the entire fennel plant is edible. This includes its bulbous base, the celery like stalks, the feathery foliage known as the fronds, the seeds and the aforementioned pollen.
Fennel has a characteristic anise aroma and taste. This is due to a chemical known as anethole, the compound also found in star anise. Anethole is 13 times sweeter than sugar. Fennel’s anise flavor is strongest when raw and declines with cooking.
Fennel is quite versatile. It can be braised, roasted or sautéed and incorporated into a wide array of dishes. Personally I like roasted fennel the best. Simply cut it into chunks, coat it with some olive oil, add salt and pepper and the herbs of your choice, and roast it in the oven at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes. This is a simple yet splendid way to enjoy fennel. Or, try roasting combinations of fennel and other vegetables. It pairs well with root vegetables such as carrots, celery root, parsnips, and onions.
Fennel can be used in salads, soups, stews, or stocks. Salads are where raw fennel truly shines. The crunchiness and fresh anise flavor add an unparalleled dimension to any salad. The fronds can be treated like any delicate herb, i.e., they are best uncooked and sprinkled on your dish just before serving. Although the stalks are edible, they are often discarded in favor of the bulb. Fennel is classically paired with fish but works well with chicken, lamb and pork as well.
Special mention must be given to fennel seeds. They are available whole and ground. Like all spices they will last longer and taste fresher when purchased whole and ground as needed. They are used to flavor breads, sauces, marinades, and liqueurs. Fennel seeds are indispensable for Italian sausage, certain Indian spice mixtures and Chinese five-spice powder. In addition to fennel, five-spice powder includes cinnamon, star anise, Szechwan peppercorns, and cloves. It is used in a wide variety of Chinese dishes. I find it particularly good mixed with an ample amount of salt and smothered on chicken wings or duck breast.
Fennel seeds are used to flavor absinthe, an erroneously maligned spirit that remains banned in the United States due to unyielding ignorance and paranoia. A century ago absinthe was thought to cause deleterious psychological effects but this has been proven false. It was thought that a chemical in absinthe called thujone, (which emanates from the wormwood plant used to make traditional absinthe), produced hallucinations. Not only was this found to be a misnomer, the amount in absinthe is minimal. Should you travel to Europe, be sure to take advantage of their sensibility and sample the absinthe. Pseudo-absinthes are available in the US but they are not made from wormwood and thus, really aren’t absinthe.
Choose fennel that is crisp and devoid of any wilting, cracks, or brown spots. Refrigerate it in a plastic bag for no more than five days. Three or less is preferable as its flavor decreases fairly rapidly. To trim the bulb, sever it from the stalks, cut it in half vertically, and then remove the core by making a triangular incision in each half. Fennel is rich in vitamin A, calcium, phosphorous, and potassium.
• 2 large fennel bulbs, julienned
• Half a head of iceberg lettuce, cut into strips
• 4 plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
• 1 cucumber, halved lengthwise, seeded, and thinly sliced
For the dressing:
• 3 tablespoons lemon juice
• 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
• 2 teaspoons mayonnaise
• 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
• 2 teaspoons chopped parsley
• 2 teaspoons chopped basil
• 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
• Salt and pepper to taste
• Half cup extra virgin olive oil
Combine all the ingredients for the salad. In a separate bowl combine and whisk all of the ingredients for the dressing except the oil. Gradually add the oil in a thin stream, constantly whisking until fully incorporated. Toss with the salad and serve.
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