Cooking With Fennel

A handsome plant with fine flavor and stature in the garden.

| April/May 1995

  • Bronze and green fennels play off each other, contributing structure and texture to this corner of a garden in Oregon.
    Photography by Rosalind Creasy
  • Side by side, the billowing shapes of herb fennels make a lush picture.
  • Fennel holds its delicate flowers above a lacework of foliage.
  • A swallowtail caterpillar makes himself at home on a fennel plant.
  • Fennel is only one of the interesting flavors that blend together in this standout side dish, Pistachio Rice with Two Fennels.
  • Florence fennel bulbs are the basis for this light and lively salad.

Fennel Recipes:

Fennel Salad with Lemon and Mint
Pistachio Rice with Two Fennels
Roast Pork with Fennel Stuffing
Scallops with Fennel and Edible Blossoms
Almond Fennel Biscotti 

The sweet anise fragrance of fennel takes me back to hiking along the California shore with my young family. Often, wands of wild fennel would lie across our path and we’d brush them as we passed; soon our hands and clothes would give off its soothing perfume. Nowadays, when­­ever I cook with fennel, a small part of me is off hiking at the seashore.

When I started gathering my thoughts on fennel, I had not expected to find that it had subtly woven its way into my life. Cilantro, yes, basil, certainly, but not fennel: fennel is not an “in your face” kind of herb. But I’ve found that it has sweetly insinuated itself into my garden, kitchen, landscape designs, and occasional flower arrangements. Fennel even provides food for a constant parade of emerging anise swallowtail butterflies.

Three forms of fennel, all semihardy, are of interest to gardeners. Foeniculum vulgare is called herb fennel or wild fennel; bronze or smoky fennel (F. v. ‘Rubrum’) is a cultivar. The variety F. v. var. azoricum is known variously as ­Florence fennel, finocchio, sweet anise, or vegetable fennel. The fennels are members of the noble Umbelliferae, a family that includes other treasured herbs such as dill, anise, chervil, angelica, coriander, and parsley along with such familiar vegetables as carrots, ­celery, and parsnips.

The herb fennels grow from 4 to 6 feet tall and have hollow stems and feathery foliage like that of dill. F. vulgare has blue-green leaves whereas those of bronze fennel are coppery brown. Their small yellow flowers are borne in 6-inch umbels in midsummer. In fall, the seed heads contain dozens of light tan ovoid, ribbed seeds. The leaves and seeds are the primary parts used for seasoning; occasionally, the stalks and roots are also used.

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