An Ode to Fennel

4285571051_17934b0e86_m.jpgOh Luscious Bulb! Sweet Anise Divine!

OK, that’s it for the ode part! Occasionally I do know when to quit while I’m ahead. But I am writing about fennel this week because I love it and I finally have a couple of farmers who are growing it to sell at the markets. It isn’t easy to grow in this area, and it wasn’t easy to convince those farmers to grow it either, but in appreciation for their special efforts, the least I can do is let you know why we all went to so much trouble.

I am indebted to numerous articles over the years in the food magazines I read but also to an NPR story by Howard Yoon and SixWise.com for the nutritional analysis.

I am not sure I had ever used it or even seen it until I was putting together a menu for a mystery-solving party that I catered for a client some 20 years ago. The mystery they would be solving during the dinner took place in the Mediterranean, so I developed a menu around a Moroccan stew and somewhere along the way was inspired to include braised fennel as one of the accompanying dishes. And the love affair began — which is a miracle, because your first whiff of fennel will remind you of licorice, and I hate licorice.

But it is called “sweet” anise for a reason; it is a much milder and sweeter cousin of plain old anise, the herb that inspired the licorice flavor in candy and other more pungent foods.

I now use fennel in every dish that requires any kind of mirepoix or mixture of aromatic veggies to lay the foundation for the flavors to come. I cannot bring myself to make a tomato sauce without it, but I also use it in chili, soups, and beans and rice, and the list really does go on and on. Like onions and garlic, I always have it on hand. I use it all year long, even if I have to buy it at the grocery store, and it is the star attraction in dishes such as fennel slaw and any frittata that I make. Sauteed with onion as the base of a frittata, it caramelizes in the oven and produces one of my favorite flavors.

Along the way I have learned that it is one of the healthiest veggies you can eat, so using it the way I do provides a wealth of nutrients on a regular basis. It’s much better for you than taking a multivitamin and much more delicious. Fennel provides an amazing amount of phytonutrients that have been found to reduce inflammation and help prevent cancer. It is loaded with vitamin C, which as an antioxidant protects your body from free-radical damage and helps keep the immune system healthy itself.

Fennel is a good source of fiber, which helps reduce cholesterol levels, and folate, which helps reduce the risk of heart attacks by turning a dangerous molecule in your body into a harmless compound.

And these benefits have been known since ancient times. There is evidence that Greeks and Romans used fennel as medicine; Pliny the Elder catalogued 22 remedies that used fennel. Charlemagne required that it be included in every imperial garden. It was used in this country by the Puritans, who chewed the seeds during worship services, and at some point in history it was introduced as a seed in bread. When I catered, I made a great fennel rye loaf even before I tried the vegetable itself.

Fennel appears in many international cuisines; it is essential to Indian curries and used in sweet Italian sausage. It is one of the ingredients in Chinese five-spice powder, and it shows up in other Mediterranean and African cuisines. This widespread use of fennel is another testament to its medicinal roots in ancient times and across far-flung climes. At one time, humans ate to stay healthy, not to become unhealthy.

In the modern kitchen, fennel enhances the flavor of other seemingly unrelated ingredients from salmon to oranges. It adds depth to those dishes I mentioned above and does have a lovely, delicate flavor of its own when roasted, braised, or grilled.

So why would you not want to try it? At the market this week, show your appreciation to the farmers who are growing it and the history that has kept it alive as a potent nutrient and delicious ingredient all these years. You too can do something different with it every week and learn to love it as I do. Ode ended.

Photo by Joelk75