Sweet or Florence fennel, also known as finocchio ("finook" among Italians here), is related to parsley. It looks something like a pale, very fat celery bunch topped with fine leaves that resemble dill. The fennel bulb has a crisp texture and a slightly sweet flavor that is faintly reminiscent of anise oro licorice. The fennel grown in California is often labeled anise or sweet anise, and although it is related, it's not what Europeans know as anise, which is stronger-tasting, weedy relative generally used as an herb. Fennel has a much more delicate flavor that's very refreshing in salads or added to vegetables and seafood. It's also simply delicious braised.
Fennel has been popular in Mediterranean countries since ancient times. The Greeks prized it as a medicine as well as a food, the Romans, who cultivated it extensively, prized it more for the fine-leafed tops, which they used as an herb. They also made an extract of fennel to treat eye diseases, especially cataracts. Italian immigrants introduced the plant to the United States, where it's now grown for export. The bulb size of California fennel is about the size of a grapefruit, while imports from Belgium and Italy are a bit smaller.
Imports make fennel available all year, but its mains season is October through April, when fennel grown in California is plentiful.
Choose firm, pale bulbs with a good appearance. The tops of fresh fenneld should be green and sprightly. Avoid fennel displayed with the tops cut off - it's usually old.
Fennel should be used within a few days of purchase because it dries out and the flavor fades as it gets older. Cut off the tops and discard or use them right away, since they spoil faster than the bulb. The tops or thin part of the stalks can be used in salads or in pastas. If you're not using it right away, wrap the bulb in plastic and refrigerate. If fennel gets limp, you can restore its crispness by putting it in ice water for half an hour to an hour.
To prepare the bulb, trim off the stalk and the base. The wash the fennel very well in cold water. Some people use a vegetable peeler to pare off the thin outer layer, but I don't think that's necessary. In my family we usually slice the bulb thin and use it raw in salads, but it can also be baked, braised, grilled, creamed, or cooked with butter and dusted with Parmesan cheese for an excellent side dish. It can be stir-fried with other vegetables, made into tempura, or added to soups. Fennel is especially good with seafood and fish, simply slice it thin over the top of the fish before cooking, and it will add a great flavor.
In the fall, when fennel is at its peak, Italians use the green tops in pasta. With their delicate, ferny leaves, the tops are also decorative as a garnish. My mother used to decorate pumpkins with vegetables and use fennel tops for the hair. It certainly made an out-of-the-ordinary jack o'lantern.
Recipes with Turnips
Fennel and Tomato Salad
Fennel Salad Nicoise
Take a look at Thanksgiving Feast Part 2.
Other recipes from Produce Pete.