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Fennel is a more versatile herb than most people seem to think. Although commonly used to compliment fish, fennel is also found in a variety of Italian dishes. Its seed, which is used to flavor Italian sausage, is also called sweet cumin or large cumin because they look like each other. The flavor is closer to the licorice-like anise seed, for which it may be substituted.
Fennel dates back to ancient Greek, and is still considered to be a Mediterranean vegetable.
These days, most fennel on the American markets is grown in California. There are two types of fennel, one grown for seeds, the other used as a vegetable. The common type, florence or finocchio, has a bulbous base, stalks like celery, and feathery leaves that resemble Queen Anne's lace, and can be prepared in numerous ways.
It has a fresh, fragrant, anise-like flavor that is enhanced by cooking. When used raw in salads or salsas, it has a refreshing, crisp texture, complementing other raw vegetables and fish.
The crisp and slightly sweet bulb is particularly pleasant served raw in salads. Whether braised, sautéed, roasted, or grilled, the bulb mellows and softens with cooking.
The bulbs should be heavy and white, firm and free of cracks, browning, or moist areas. The stalks should be crisp, with feathery, bright-green fronds.
You can keep fennel for a few days in the refrigerator wrapped in plastic. Do not keep it more than a day or two because the flavor diminishes as it dries out.
Braising is an effective way of cooking fennel. Cut the bulbs in quarters, from tip to root, and remove just enough of the core, so that the quarters still hold together. Then melt some butter in a frying pan, add the fennel plus about 150ml chicken or vegetable stock. Season with salt and pepper, cover and braise for 20-25 minutes until tender. It is particularly nice with fish or pork.
The bulb may be also be used in antipasto platters and has an anise flavor, and can be eaten as a vegetable, cooked or raw. The stems may be chopped and added to salads.
The leaf, which is feathery, similar to dill weed, has a licorice flavor and is commonly used in fish dishes.
The leaves may be chopped and used in soups, with fish or added to salads. The seeds may be used in pickles, tomato sauces, sausages and pickles.
The flowers may also be used in herbal vinegars and salads. Fennel leaves should be added at the last minute when cooking to retain the best flavor.
In salads, try adding finely chopped, raw fennel to potato salad or coleslaw, to add crunch and a mild aniseed flavor. Also sliced fennel can be used in the poaching water, when poaching or steaming fish. Or it can also add it to homemade fish stock.
An important nutritional value of fennel is that it contains large amounts of vitamin C, one cup containing nearly 20% of your daily vitamin C requirement.
Fennel can be a very effective accompaniment to chicken dishes. I like to use the entire drumstick and thighs to most effectively flavor the fenne.l
In this simple chicken dish cut up a whole chicken, about one and a half kilos, separating the drumsticks from the thighs.
Otherwise you will need
80ml olive oil
2 fennel bulbs, sliced to 6 mm thick slices
fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish, lemon wedges, salt and pepper to taste
Then, preheat your oven to 200 degrees C. Drizzle half the olive oil into bottom of baking dish and layer with fennel slices. Drizzle the rest of the olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Roast in oven for 10 minutes.
Lay the chicken thighs and drumsticks on top of the fennel, skin side up, baste with pan juices and return to the oven for a further 10 minutes. Then add the breast pieces and baste again.
Keep basting the chicken until it is golden brown – it should take about another 20 minutes to fully cook.
Serve the chicken and fennel with the parsley garnish and spoon the pan juices over. Bon appetit!
Ian Finlayson is the chief writer and Webmaster of The Herb Spiral, a site dealing with cooking with herbs and with the therapeutic properties of medicinal herbs. For more about cooking with fennel and other culinary herbs visit his site