I don’t think I had ever tasted fennel until I worked in a restaurant. Growing up, most of the vegetables we ate came from a can, and when we did have fresh produce, fennel certainly wasn’t on the list. But during my time as a line cook, I was introduced to it and fell in love.
I remember preparing a fennel and black pepper compote — a divine mix of sliced fennel bulb poached in a sugar syrup and black pepper — to go with the restaurant’s cheese board offering. As any line cook worth their salt does, during my prep I’d taste a piece for quality control before cutting the rest of the bulb, and through this ritual I came to enjoy the flavor of raw fennel. From there, I began to explore cooked preparations whenever I got the chance. Now, fennel and I are in a committed long-term relationship.
While some might be scared off by the oft-applied anise or licorice descriptors, I’m here to tell you that there is nothing to be afraid of when it comes to fennel. Here’s what you need to know to select, store, cook and fall in love with fennel.
Get to know the plant
The fennel variety most commonly available today at grocery stores and farmers markets is sometimes called bulb fennel, Florence fennel or finocchio. The plant is indigenous to the Mediterranean and is part of the same botanical family as carrots and parsley. Historically, it was very popular in the region, prized in culinary, medicinal and other uses. (“In medieval times, fennel was used to protect against witchcraft and evil spirits,” according to NPR.) And according to Greek mythology, we even have fennel to thank for fire, as it’s said that its hollow stalk was used to transport fire to mankind from the gods by Prometheus.
Fennel hasn’t been quite as in vogue in the modern age, but perhaps it’s due for a comeback.
If you’re wary of its flavor, don’t be. Though lumped together with anise at times (the pair are the predominant flavors in absinthe), fennel is its own distinct vegetable. Sometimes called “sweet anise,” fennel has a much tamer licorice flavor than actual anise that’s “not overwhelming in the raw vegetable, and especially subtle when cooked,” former Washington Post recipe editor Bonnie Benwick wrote in her primer on the vegetable almost a decade ago. I’d describe fennel’s taste as lightly anise, vegetal and subtly sweet, the latter of which intensifies when it’s cooked. It works in a variety of cuisines and preparations, with fish being a common pairing.
Selecting and storing
While usually available year-round, fennel’s peak season is fall through early spring — and that’s when you are likely to see it at farmers markets. When shopping, look for bulbs that are firm and free of blemishes. It should also appear moist, which is an indication that it was recently harvested. (Dryness is a sign that it has been a while since the plant was harvested, which can sometimes cause the bulb to crack and split.) Fresh fennel should last for at least a few days stored loosely wrapped in the refrigerator, and if it comes with stalks attached, Food52 recommends separating them from the bulb for storing, as the stalks will draw out moisture.
Use it all
The entire fennel plant is edible, including the bulb, stalk, fronds, “seeds,” blossoms and even its pollen.
When most recipes call for “fennel,” they are referring to the large, bulbous base and its thick, pale green leaves. To use, start by trimming the root end with a knife to remove the dried part of the stem. Then, depending on the state of the outermost leaves, you can either use a vegetable peeler to remove any brown spots or blemishes, or discard the entire outer layer. The core that holds the leaves together can be tough, so depending on its size and if you plan to eat the fennel raw, it might be best removed. The fennel bulb can be used in a number of ways, such as thinly shaved and kept raw in salads, sliced like an onion and sauteed, and cut into wedges to be grilled or braised.
Use the fibrous stalks just as you would celery. They’re great for soups, stews and stocks, but could also be thinly sliced and added to a salad. Another way to make use of them is as a bed for roasted meats or fish.
Frilly, feathery fronds look similar to dill and remind me of a delicate lace. Fennel fronds have a slightly more citrusy flavor than the bulb and stalks, and should be used in the same way as any other soft herb. They’re great in salads, vinaigrettes, sauces and as a garnish.
If you’re into edible flowers, fennel blooms in midsummer with tiny yellow blossoms to pluck and beautify whatever dishes you’re making. The flower’s pollen has long been used in Italy, where it’s a classic flavoring for porchetta, and was introduced to American cooks in the 1990s. Peggy Knickerbocker wrote in Saveur, of using the pollen as a spice, “If angels sprinkled a spice from their wings, this would be it.” As for the taste? “Fennel pollen is an incredibly powerful spice, with notes of licorice, citrus, and handmade marshmallows,” Max Falkowitz wrote in Serious Eats.
Given the pollen’s potency, a little goes a long way. “It has an authority to it, and lends a confidence to dishes as if they were to say, this is what food should taste like,” Falkowitz wrote.
And if you have never eaten fresh fennel, then you have likely encountered its “seeds,” which are actually the fruit born when the blossoms are allowed to mature that are then dried. Fennel seeds primarily taste of licorice, can be used whole or ground, and are the predominant spice in Italian sausage and a component of Chinese five-spice powder. (And once you’re done with your meal, chewing the seeds also helps fight bad breath.)
From bulb to flower and beyond, fennel has multitudes to offer. If you aren’t ready to confess your love for fennel just yet, then I hope I’ve at least convinced you to become fronds.