Fennel is a cool-season vegetable that grows to about 2 inches in height, with feathery, edible, dill-like foliage. This plant bears the scientific name Foeniculum vulgare. Typically, it can grow in roadsides, pastures, along the edge of wild habitats, rocky shores and hills. The base of the leaf stalks overlap and swell to form a thick, crisp, above-ground bulb with a fresh, delicate anise-like flavor. Fennel requires frequent irrigation, plants that do not receive enough water can develop cracked stems. In some cultures, fennel seeds are eaten after meals as a breath freshener. Fennel seeds offer certain health benefits, along with potential health risks. There are two basic types of fennel:
- Florence, also known as finocchio
This type of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare v. azoricum) is an annual plant commonly used as a vegetable. An alternate name for this vegetable is “bulb fennel. Florence fennel grows about 3 feet high and has a thick, bulb-like base that is similar to celery. The leaf stems of Florence fennel are an important ingredient in Italian cuisine. It can be incorporated into a stir-fry, served boiled or steamed, or added in slices of raw fennel to a salad. “Trieste” and “Zefa Fino” are two varieties of Florence fennel recommended by Washington State University Extension.
- Sweet Fennel
Sweet or common fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, is a perennial plant grown as an herb as well as for its seeds. Sweet fennel can reach a height of 4 or 5 feet. In French and Italian cooking, fennel leaf is commonly added to sauces and mayonnaise. Fennel is also an ingredient in some kinds of breads, cakes and liquors.
Bronze fennel or Foeniculum vulgare “Purpurascens” is a type of sweet fennel whose leaves have an attractive bronze cast. The plant is useful not only as an herb, but also as an ornament in the flower garden. Bronze fennel is often planted in butterfly gardens, since it attracts butterflies and other beneficial insects. In particular, bronze fennel is an important host plant for the black swallowtail butterfly.
Fennel seeds form long, thin curved seeds that vary in color from brown to light green, with the green seeds being considered the most valuable. Fennel seeds are used to add sweet anise-like flavor to the foods of many regional cuisines. The seeds are also used as an ingredient in a wide range of products, including teas, soft drinks, curries, sausages, cough drops, laxatives and room sprays.
Fennel seeds have plenty of properties. Native to the Mediterranean, these aromatic seeds are used in cuisines around the world. Throughout history, fennel seeds have been used in various recipes. It is particularly delicious when used with fish seasonings and sauces. It can be used as well to freshen one’s breath after a meal. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the seeds have the following nutrition values:
|Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)|
|Energy||1,443 kJ (345 kcal)|
|Dietary fiber||40 g|
Historically, the roman ruler Charlemagne (745-815 AD) advocated fennel’s use during his reign in the medieval time. He cultivated it on his imperial farms. Romans introduced fennel to Britain during the Roman conquest while the Americas were introduced to fennel in the 1700’s.
Fennel is especially popular in French and Italian cooking but it is also a common spice in Indian and north African cuisine. Furthermore, it is one of the more pronounced flavors in Chinese five-spice powder. The flavor of fennel seeds is often described as being mildly woody and sweet as well as being similar to that of anise or licorice. Fennel seed has an oval shape, and once dried takes on a greenish-brown color, which slowly fades to gray as the seeds age.
Due to their similar sweet and subtle licorice-like taste, fennel seed is often confused with anise. Fennel is used in almost every culture. Italians use it on pork roast and in sauces. The French use it on fish while the Germans use it in sauerkraut. The Greeks use in breads, the Chinese on poultry and people of India not only chew fennel as a breath freshener, but use it as an important ingredient in many curries. In Spain, the stems of the fennel plant are used in the preparation of pickled eggplants. Fennel seeds can be used in sausage making, soups, cakes and cookies. In the Indian subcontinent, fennel seeds are also eaten raw, sometimes with a sweetener.