True fennel is a very hardy perennial herb that can be identified by its yellow flowers and feathery leaves. It is an extraordinarily aromatic and flavorful herb with both culinary and medicinary purposes. Along with the similar-tasting ingredient, anise, fennel is one of the primary ingredients in absinthe. Culinary fennel, known as Florence fennel or finocchio, has a swollen, bulb-like stem base and feathery fronds; it is used as a vegetable. Fennel is indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean, but has become widely cultivated worldwide; it is most often found in dry soils near sea coasts and on riverbanks.
Fennel is cultivated for its edible, strongly flavored leaves and fruits, which are often called "seeds." The aniseed flavor of fennel comes from a chemical compound named anethole, which is an aromatic compound found in both anise and star anise. The taste and flavor are both similar to both, but fennel is not as strong in flavor.
Florence fennel has inflated leaf bases that form a bulb-like structure. It has a mild anise-like flavor, but is aromatic and sweeter. The "bulb" is eaten as a vegetable in both raw and cooked forms. There are several cultivars of Florence fennel available, the most notable of which is named finocchio. Be aware that in North American grocery stores, fennel is often mislabeled as being anise, which it is not!
The bulb, fronds, and seeds of fennel can be used in many culinary traditions of the world. Dried fennel seed is an aromatic, anise-flavored spice. The seeds are either brown or green when fresh, and grey when they age. For cooking, the green seeds are best to use. The fronds are delicately flavored and resemble dill; they are excellent in salads. The bulb can be sautéed, stewed, braised, grilled, or eaten raw.
Fennel is a prominent ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine. Both the bulb and the fronds are used in side dishes, salads, pastas, vegetable dishes and risottos. Fennel seed is a main ingredient in Italian sausages and meatballs and in northern European rye breads.
Many egg and fish dishes employ fresh or dried fennel. Florence fennel is a key ingredient in some Italian and German salads, often tossed with chicory or avocado. It can be braised and warmed as a side dish or blanched, marinated, or cooked in risottos.
Fennel is thought to be beneficial to good health. Studies suggest that fennel seeds or tea, when given to adults, can relax the intestines and decrease bloating due to digestive disorders. There is also belief that extracts of fennel seed may have a potential use in the treatment of glaucoma. Fennel may also be an effective diuretic and for treatment of hypertension.
Please note that these observations have not been conclusively proven by science. Always check with your health professional before starting any kind of dietary regiment to avoid any possible drug interactions or health complications.
Fennel, like nearly all vegetables, is low in calories but high in nutrition. It is loaded with valuable vitamins and minerals. In a 1/2 cup serving, there are only about 30 calories, with trace amounts of naturally occuring fat. It is not high in protein, but holds about 3 grams of dietary fiber.
It is surprisingly high in vitamin C, with one serving containing about 14% DV. Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6 and B9 are found in fennel in small amounts. Calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and potassium are also found in small amounts.