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Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.

All About Fennel

by Sandra Bowens

Funny, it tastes a little like licorice but actually it is fennel. Typically used to compliment fish, fennel is found in a variety of Italian dishes, as well. It is the seed that flavors Italian sausage. Fennel seed is also called sweet cumin or large cumin because they resemble each other. The flavor is closer to the licorice-like anise seed, for which it may be substituted.


Fennel, with its pale green color and pleasant, aromatic scent is said to symbolize flattery and to be an emblem of heroism. It is native to Mediterranean regions. Legend has it that the Battle of Marathon, the town for which the famous race is named, was fought in a field of fennel. It is one of the earliest known herbs and was often called the “meetin’ seed”. It was nibbled in church to curb the appetite or quiet a restless child. Most fennel seed is imported from India, Egypt and China.


Aside from the seed, fennel bulbs and the leaf are used in cooking. They are particularly prized in the Italian kitchen. The bulb, frequently found marinated on antipasto platters, has an anise flavor with hints of celery. The feathery leaf, resembling dill weed, imparts a faint licorice flavor and is used with the bulb or as an herb.


Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, is a tender perennial best grown as an annual since it does not handle frost well.  It does not handle transplanting well either so direct seed where you want the plant to grow. Fennel can reach four or five feet in height and looks like a large dill plant. It will cross-pollinate with dill, rendering the seed nearly flavorless, so plan accordingly. As if all these particulars weren't enough, gardeners should also be aware that fennel will interfere with the growth of bush beans, caraway, tomatoes and kohlrabi.  Fennel itself could be stunted by nearby coriander and wormwood.

If you are growing fennel for the bulb, look for Florence fennel or finocchio and grow it like a vegetable. If it is the leaves and seeds you are after, the plants are called sweet fennel.


The leaves and tender young stalks may be trimmed at any time in the growing process for use in salads or crudités as an interesting alternative to celery. The leaves will not retain their flavor when dried.


Fennel seeds will mature at different rates. Harvesting each flower should be spread over the space of a week or so. Every other day, hold the flowers over a bag and shake gently to capture the ripened seeds.


As mentioned above, fennel seeds are one of the spices that give Italian sausage its distinct flavor. The seeds are a natural with other meats, too, as well as fish and poultry, vegetables and even baked goods. They are an occasional component in curry powders and pickles.


When shopping for whole fennel, look for a firm bulb with the leaves and stalks still attached. Serve the fennel chopped into salads or enjoy it as the Italians do--sliced raw and presented with olive oil, salt and lemon wedges. Fennel bulbs are excellent marinated, braised or roasted, on their own or as a part of a dish. One cookbook suggests stuffing the fronds and stalks into the cavity of poultry before roasting while another mentions that it pairs well with cheese.  Italian cookbooks are your best source for finding interesting recipes and uses for fennel.


Seed, bulb or frond, fennel is a versatile herb you are sure to enjoy in your own kitchen.




Monster Meatballs

(8 large meatballs)


3/4 pound ground beef

1/4 pound ground pork

1 egg

1/2 cup soft breadcrumbs

1/4 cup minced onions

1 clove garlic, minced

3 Tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons dried oregano

1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seed

3/4 teaspoon dried basil

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place all ingredients in a large bowl and mix lightly, but thoroughly, with hands. Form mixture into 8 meatballs, using about 1/3 cup for each one. Place on a rack over a roasting pan so that any fat will drain off during cooking. Bake for about 25 minutes or until cooked through.


Serve with pasta and sauce, if desired, or split, stuff into French rolls and top with tomato sauce and cheese for monster sandwiches.


For recipes using fresh fennel bulbs see A Pinch of Saffron: Herbal Tapas and Herb of the Year 2005: Oregano, Family and Friends





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