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VOL. 37 | NO. 20 | Friday, May 17, 2013

Fennel: Looks strange, tastes great

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How much do you know about this fennel? That’s about how much I know, too! One thing is for sure, however, I made a great chicken dish for dinner using this spice/vegetable.

I had never tried fennel before because it was so strange looking and I didn’t know quite what to do with it. Now that I have tried it, it will become something I use more often.

Fennel is crunchy and slightly sweet. Some people associate the taste with licorice. I think it smells a lot like licorice, but once I sautéed it, I thought it tasted a lot like fired okra. I love fried okra, and the thought of getting something that tastes like fried okra in half the time it takes to fix it is a great thing for me.

Sautéed fennel also is better for you, as far as the breading and frying part.

Fennel, botanically known as foeniculum vulgare, is a favorite in Italian cooking. Fennel is mild, slightly sweet and crunchy, adding a refreshing taste to the ever-popular Mediterranean cuisine.

There are two main types of this aromatic plant, both having pale green, celery-like stems and bright-green, feathery foliage. The bright golden flowers, produced in large, flat terminal umbels are in bloom in July and August. Florence fennel, or finocchio, is cultivated throughout the Mediterranean and in the United States. It has a broad, bulbous base as a vegetable, and both the base and stems can be eaten raw in salads or cooked.

The fragrant greenery can be used as garnish or snipped and used as a flavor enhancer. The flavor is sweeter and more delicate than anise and, when cooked, becomes even lighter and subtler than in its raw state.

Fennel Chicken and Rice

3-4 chicken leg quarters
5 cups of chicken broth
2 cups of dry rice
2 tablespoons of fennel seed

Pour the broth into a baking dish. Add rice and stir to evenly distribute the rice on the bottom. Lay the chicken leg quarters on top. Sprinkle fennel seed over everything. Cover and bake at 325° for about 45 minutes.

Common fennel is the variety from which the oval, greenish-brown fennel seeds come. The seeds are available whole and ground, and are used in both sweet and savory foods, as well as to flavor many liqueurs.

History & medicinal uses

Fennel, long reputed as a medicinal herb, was first used and cultivated by the ancient Romans. Pliny had faith in its many medicinal properties, observing that serpents eat it “when they cast their old skins, and they sharpen their sight with the juice by rubbing against the plant.” I don’t know if that’s fact or fiction, but here are some real facts:

Fennel tea will help to relieve an upset stomach. Try simmering one to two teaspoons of bruised seeds in eight ounces of water.

Syrup prepared from fennel juice has been used as a cure for chronic coughs.

Fennel seed has been used as an anti-spasmodic, diuretic, expectorant, laxative and stimulant. Fennel has also been used to stimulate lactation, as a remedy against colic, and to improve the taste of other medicines.

Chinese herbal medicine includes the use of fennel for gastroenteritis, hernias, indigestion, abdominal pain, and to resolve phlegm.

Fennel Seed is widely used in India as an after-dinner breath freshener and to aid digestion.

Selection and storage

Quality fennel will be clean, firm and solid. Stalks should be relatively straight and tight around the bulb. Both the stalks and the leaves should be pale green. There should be no signs of flowering, and it should have a fragrant aroma, smelling subtly of licorice or anise.

Store it in the refrigerator crisper, where it should keep fresh for about four days. While fresh fennel can be frozen, it loses much of its flavor in doing so. Dried fennel seeds should be stored in an airtight container in a cool and dry location, where they will keep for about six months.

Storing fennel seeds in the refrigerator will help them stay fresher even longer.

Serving ideas

Sautéed fennel and onions make a wonderful side dish. Top sandwiches with sliced fennel, lettuce and tomato. Sautéed fennel is a wonderful accompaniment to salmon and scallops.

Try the recipe below. It’s easy, quick, and incredibly delicious. Serve with fresh garlic-roasted asparagus and some hot sourdough bread!