Fennel is one of the oldest cultivated plants and was held sacred by Anglo-Saxons for its power against evil. Every part of this amazing plant, from the seeds to the root, is edible and delicious. Fennel is related to anise, but is much milder. Both fennel and anise are in the carrot family. The Italians have always appreciated and utilized fennel in side dishes, salads, breads, cookies, cakes, pastas, risottos, sausages and meatballs. Many Indian and Middle Eastern cultures use fennel seed prominently in their cuisines. Most Americans, however, seem to be unfamiliar or appreciate the versatility of Fennel.
You’ll see invasive wild fennel along most of the highways in central California (see photo above-on the left side). This wild fennel, or "freeway fennel," is very woody and has no bulbous root like its Mediterranean cousin, which is found in most supermarkets. You can use wild fennel as a bed to grill fish, or use its pollen from the golden flower heads to flavor fish or vegetables. To get the pollen, you simply cover the flower head with a paper bag, and tap it a couple times and catch the pollen in the bag.
The stems on most of the fennel found at American markets is usually too tough to eat, but if you have fresh young stems they can be chopped and added to salads. The leaves look similar to Dill and can chopped for salads, sauces, or soups.
The bulbous base of Fennel can be sliced or grated raw and added to salads or sandwiches. Trim off the bottom and tough stems on top. It’s great thinly sliced and dressed with a simple vinaigrette. The bulb can also be braised, sautéed, or fried. Mr. Peacock is quite fond of Fennel Gratin, but only serves it on special occasions because it’s so rich. You can make it with a béchamel sauce or just cream.
Mr. Peacock even uses fennel toothpaste. It’s mild anise flavor is a nice alternative to the harshness of some mint flavored toothpastes.
Fennel is mainly known as a culinary herb, but also has several medicinal uses, including as a remedy for flatulence. Indians frequently offer candy coated fennel seeds, or mukhwas, after meals to aid digestion (see photo above). I like to serve them sprinkled on ice cream after spicy dinners.
Mr. Peacock's Ice Cream with Fennel Candies
I love the creaminess of the vanilla ice cream contrasting with the sweet, crunchy mild anise flavor of the fennel candies. They're like candy sprinkles for adults.
• Good quality vanilla ice cream
• Fennel Candy—very inexpensive and available at Indian Markets or online here.
Pour the candies into a small dish with a spoon. Let everyone sprinkle the candy on their ice cream to their taste—I like a heaping spoonful!
If you’re not familiar with fennel, please try it! Buy a bulb or two today at your supermarket and add some to your salad or make Fennel Gratin for you sweetie on Valentine’s Day. It’ll also keep away the evil spirits on this Friday the 13th. What’s your favorite way to eat fennel?