HERB OF THE MONTH
Sweet or common fennel, Florence fennel, finocchio, bronze
History and Traditions: The Romans enjoyed fennel both as a culinary plant, eating the stems as a vegetable, and for its medicinal properties. Pliny listed it as a remedy for no fewer than 22 complaints. It appears in early Anglo-Saxon texts and European records of the 10th century and was associated with magic and spells being hung up at doors on Midsummer’s Eve to deter witches. It was also used as a slimming aid and to deaden the pangs of hunger. A use which is still valid today, as it may be relevant that the chemical structure of fennel bears certain similarities to that of amphetamines.
Fennel is one of the tallest and most graceful plants in the herb garden. It resembles a larger version of dill. The purplish foliage of bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare “Purpurascens”) is particularly ornamental. Fennel has a distinctive aniseed scent and taste; the main volatile oil of both anise and fennel is anethole. It is often confused with dill, although fennel is a taller plant with slightly shinier, longer, and less divided leaves, and its stems are not hollow as are those of the dill. If you are at all in doubt, simply taste the leaves for certainty; fennel’s delicate licorice flavor will be evident.
There are several varieties of this herb. The more common fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), a perennial, is primarily used for its seeds and leaves, which are favored by the French in salads, court bouillon (for poaching fish,) and for wrapping around fish before grilling. Provencal cooks prepare the renowned “grillade au fenouil” by drying fennel stalks and placing them under a grilled white sea bass and flambeing it with brandy, igniting the stalks and permeating the fish with flavor. According to celebrated herbalist and author, Lucinda Hutson, adding dried fennel stalks to the hot coals directly before barbecuing fish or shrimp gives a good flavor, as does enveloping the fish with damp leaves before placing on the grill.
Bronze fennel (F.var.rubrum) is rapidly gaining in popularity for the reddish-bronze contrast it provides in the garden. The leaves are both ornamental and edible. Another type of fennel that has long been a favorite of Italians is Florence fennel (F.vulgare.var. azoricum), more commonly known as finocchio. Although the leaves may be used, it is grown primarily for its stems and bulbous celery-like base. This plant grows smaller than common fennel (approximately 2 feet) and is harvested as an annual, whereas common fennel is a perennial.
Florence fennel, often considered a vegetable, has exciting culinary possibilities. To cook with it, discard the pithy stalks and cut off the bottom of the bulb; trim off the feathery leaves and reserve, then slice the bulb vertically or horizontally in rings. It may be sautéed, then baked with tomatoes, onions, and freshly grated Parmesan. Or it may be sliced and brushed with olive oil, minced garlic, grated Parmesan and baked at 400 degrees for approximately 10 minutes per side, then served with lemon juice and salt and pepper, garnished with fresh fennel springs. The bulb may be eaten cooked or raw in a cold salad. It may be substituted for celery whenever a crisp and crunchy texture is desired, although the two flavors are dissimilar. Tender, raw fennel stems may be used with antipasto platters or to scoop up a tasty cheese dip. Another favorite way to use fennel is with fish, nesting a fresh fillet on a bed of feathery foliage with the sautéed bulb and slices of orange.
Fennel seed offer further culinary possibilities. Italian cooks frequently add them to enrich tomato sauces and sausages and they give a welcome surprise to pizza, whether used in the crust or the sauce. (On a personal note; my grandmother, Theresa Palaggi, who was born in Calabria, Italy, made her sausage with Pork Butt, which she would hand grind, and for flavor, fennel seeds with salt and pepper. Delicioso!!) These aromatic seeds are used for other spice blends, such as; baking, pickling and seasoning fish, salads, soups, sauces, and cooked vegetables. Seeds form after the yellow umbrella-shaped flower heads fade. They should be harvested similarly to dill.
Medicinal uses: As an infusion of the seeds soothes the digestive system and is said to increase the production of breast milk in nursing mothers as well as being settling for the baby. Also used as a mouthwash for gum disorders and a gargle for sore throats.
Caution: Fennel has a long history of safe use, but a few individuals can be allergic to the anethole it contains. For aromatherapy, it is best to use the essential oil of Florence fennel rather than bitter fennel. The oil should not be used by pregnant women or children.
Fennel Tea: Drinking fennel can have a good effect when on a slimming regime. Try taking a cup before meals to reduce appetite. One cup of boiling water, 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds, ½ thin slice of fresh orange or fresh shredded rind. Put the fennel seeds in a cup or pot, crush them slightly and pour boiling water over the seeds. Cover and leave to infuse for 5 minutes. Strain before serving and add a slice of orange or shred of curled orange rind for extra flavor.