'What do you do with all that beautiful fennel you have growing in your garden?' I asked of my sister at the weekend. 'I love to grow it, as it looks so pretty. A lot like a fern,' she replied. 'The only thing is that the seeds tend to wander, and the roots take over, so they pop up everywhere,' she laughed. 'Oh, so you don't cook with it at all?' I enquired, although knowing my older sibling I wasn't really surprised. 'No darling, you know how it is, since mum and dad passed I've been the gardener in the family, and you've been the cook,' she explained with a laugh. Note to self: the volatile oils in fennel seeds are said to aid digestive disorders, so be sure to snaffle some seeds in the near future!
Fennel is the tall herbaceous plant with lacy foliage and golden seed heads, a variety of which you may have noticed growing wild by the roadside around the world. It is so prolific, I believe that wild fennel is classed as a noxious weed in parts of Australia and New Zealand.
Technically an umbelliferous plant, that is, a plant with long stems and flowers forming clusters known as 'umbels', fennel is recognised in historical texts as being the best herb to encourage the milk yield from a cow. It is also mentioned in Anglo-Saxon herbal references, noted as being a useful medicine for digestive complaints.
In terms of its health benefits, Greek and Roman soldiers are said to have eaten fennel to maintain good health, whereas women of that era ate it to prevent obesity. Chewing anise-flavoured sweet fennel seeds after a meal will not only cleanse your palate and freshen your breath, but also ease flatulence and stimulate digestion. Drinking fennel tea or chewing lakhs and crores (those brightly coloured, sugar-coated fennel seeds) provides similar benefits.
A native of southern Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, the bulb of the Florence fennel plant is enjoyed as a vegetable, and the seeds and leaves are used as a culinary herb. Lorenza de' Medici writes that the flowers of wild fennel, or finochietto, are 'picked, tied into little bouquets and hung in the pantry'. She adds that 'the dried flowers are crumbled over dishes, especially to flavour pork'. Indeed, there is nothing quite a delicious as slow-roasted pork belly or shoulder that has had fennel seeds rubbed into slits in the flesh.
Fennel bulbs are generally harvested when they reach the size of a tennis ball. The stalks and roots trimmed and discarded. The texture of the bulb is much like tender, young celery. If you've ever grown either, you'll understand my meaning. Fennel is delicious when sliced fresh into salads, dressed simply with fine quality extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of lemon juice. It can also be gently braised in butter, topped with bacon and white wine, then baked until tender.
Fennel sits well with fish dishes, for example an exquisite slow-roasted salmon with fennel, citrus, and chillies, featured on Bon Appétit. I have made this dish, love it, and wouldn't change a single thing about the recipe. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall sings the praises of fish and fennel in a quirky article titled Fronds with Benefits. I like the sound of his recipe for Florence fennel and celeriac soup with oysters, which is on my list of 'must-try' dishes.
Ms Medici cites a recipe for Torta di riso al finocchio, or rice and fennel 'cake', in which two cups of milk are brought to the boil and then one cup of Arborio rice is added, along with two chopped fennel bulbs. Cook this gently for some 30 minutes, and then, stirring well, add half a cup of caster sugar and three eggs. Pour into a 23cm springform tin that has been generously buttered and sprinkled with fine breadcrumbs. Bake the torta in a preheated oven at 170 degrees C for 20 minutes, before serving.
On the subject of fennel and rice, risotto di finocchi, or fennel risotto, has a particularly delicate flavour. Use about two cups of Arborio to 450g of thinly sliced fennel bulb, a chopped French eschalot and around four cups of chicken or vegetable stock. Sauté the eschalot and fennel until tender, add the rice, then the stock and cook as you would normally cook risotto.
So now, tell me dear readers and fellow cooks, do you grow fennel in your garden? Do you enjoy cooking with the bulb, flowers and seeds? Please feel free to share your recipes and cooking experiences.
Thank you for taking the time to leave me a comment. I do love hearing from you! xo
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.