Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a highly versatile plant. Its seeds are commonly used as a seasoning, but every bit of the plant can be used including the leaves, stalk and root.
Fennel, in all of its forms, is often an overlooked plant in the United States. As it has several culinary and health benefits, we thought it would be worth giving fennel a closer look.
The history of fennel dates back to ancient times as it was easily accessible in the Mediterranean Basin. Greek myths state that fennel was closely associated with the Greek god of food and wine, Dionysus, and that a fennel stalk carried the coal that passed down knowledge from the gods to men. Ancient Greeks called fennel “marathon.” The town of Marathon was the site of the famous battle between the Athenians and the Persians and its name means “place of fennel”.
In AD 812, Charlemagne declared that fennel had healing properties and was essential to every garden. He even had it grown in the imperial gardens. Fennel (along with anise and wormwood) became one of the ingredients in absinthe in the late 1700’s. Absinthe became a popular drink in post WWI Europe and the United States.
Today fennel (the bulb especially) is most popular in Europe, though its seeds are often found in spice racks around the world.
Fennel is a member of the Umbellifereae family and is closely related to carrots, coriander, dill and parsley. It has a pale green or white bulb around which tightly overlaid stalks are positioned. The stalks are topped with feathery green leaves. The flowers of the plant produce the fennel seeds. As mentioned above, all of these are edible. Fennel is much like anise in taste and is often mistakenly referred to as anise in markets.
Since ancient times fennel has been grown throughout Europe, mainly in the areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Today, France, the United States, Russia, and India are some of the leading growers of fennel. Fennel plays an important role in the culinary practices of much of Europe, however it is most strongly present in France and Italy.
Fennel is easy to grow. It does best in mild climates and in full sun. Fennel is a perennial and can be grown from root division or seed.
For a list of farms that produce fennel in Arizona you can click here.
Health Benefits and Nutritional Information
• According to WHFoods.com, fennel contains the flavonoids rutin, quercitin, and various kaempferol glycosides—that give it strong antioxidant activity.
• Fennel is good for immune support, as the fennel bulb is an excellent source of vitamin C. One cup of diced, raw fennel contains 14% of the Daily Recommended Value (DRV) of vitamin C.
• Fennel contains fiber which supports digestion. As a very good source of fiber (11% of the DRV), fennel bulb may also help to reduce elevated cholesterol levels.
• Fennel contains 6% of the DRV of the B vitamin, folate, which is beneficial to women whom are expecting or trying to conceive.
• It is high in potassium (10% of the DRV). Potassium is a mineral that can lower high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for stroke and heart attack.
• Manganese (9%), copper (7%), and phosphorus (6%) are all found in fennel.
• Fennel also contains 4% of the DRV for calcium, magnesium, and iron.
• Anethol and cineole, contained in fennel, have antibacterial properties that could help prevent diarrhea.
Selection and Storage
Select fennel with bulbs that are clean and are firm and solid. There should be no signs of bruising, spotting, or splitting. The bulb should be pale green or whitish in color. Stalks should be moderately straight and superimposed around the bulb without splaying out to the sides much. The leaves and stalks should be green in color. Avoid plants that show signs of flowering, as this means it is past maturity. Fresh fennel will be quite fragrant, smelling of anise, or licorice. Fresh fennel is available in most places from autumn through the early spring.
It is best to consume fresh fennel quickly after purchase because as it ages it loses flavor. However, it will keep in the refrigerator crisper for about four or five days. You can also freeze fresh fennel after it has been blanched, though this tends to cause the plant to lose a lot of its flavor. Dried seeds are best stored in a cool, dry location in an airtight container. The seeds’ flavor is best when consumed within six months, though they can be stored for longer.
Cooking with Fennel
Fennel is considered both an herb and a vegetable, depending on how it is prepared. The bulb of the plant can be fried, pickled, baked and more. The seeds are often used as an herb for flavoring foods. The leaves are sometimes used in salads, and the flower is used as a garnish.
• Seeds – The flavor is similar to that of anise, which is the main flavoring of licorice. The seeds are often found in sausages, soups, and stews.
• Leaves – The leaves are not only found in salads, but are sometimes used to flavor fish as well. They are also a great addition to tomato soups and sauces. Use sparingly, as a little bit of licorice flavor goes a long way.
• Bulb/Stalks – As with the rest of the plant, they have a slight licorice flavor. They can be cut raw for salads and are also good in stir fries. They can also be roasted or grilled. When cooked, the taste mellows.
You can find recipes including fennel on our website by clicking here.
To help you get started, we have included this recipe using fennel bulbs, provided to us by Kelly Saxer of Desert Roots Farm:
Golden Beet, Fennel & Avocado Salad
• 2 fennel bulbs
• 4 small golden beets
• 1 avocado
• 1 shallot
• 4 tbsp. lemon juice
• 4 tbsp. rice wine vinegar
• 4 oz. goat cheese
• broccoli sprouts
• olive oil
• salt and pepper
Roast beets in a 400-degree oven (leaves removed) for an hour or until tender throughout. Fine dice the shallot and soak in lemon juice and vinegar for about 30 minutes. This will help the shallots mellow. Thinly shave fennel and then mix with the shallot mixture. Thinly slice avocado and sprinkle with lemon juice to keep from browning. Once beets are tender, let cool down and then slice thin. To plate, make a small base of golden beets on each dish, pile fennel on top of the beets, then crumble goat cheese on top of the fennel, arrange the avocado and garish with broccoli sprouts, salt and pepper to taste and drizzle with a little olive oil.
• Fennel is used as a flavoring in some natural toothpastes.
• The texture of fennel is similar to celery. It is striated and crunchy.
• Powdered fennel can be used to repel fleas around kennels and stables.
• Fennel contains aspartic acid, which may reduce flatulence.
• In many places around the world, like India, fennel is chewed after a meal to improve digestion and to freshen breath.
• During the Shakespearian times the root of fennel was one of the ingredients in Sack, an alcoholic drink featuring mead.
• In the Middle Ages fennel was hung over doorways to ward off evil spirits.