That’s not just another pretty face: fennel is tasty, good for you and will actually sweeten your breath. Renata, the pretty face behind the Mile Hill Farms fennel you’ll find at the Market tomorrow, says this is probably your last chance to try it this year.
A member of the celery family, fennel – the bulbing kind you find at Market, at least – can be eaten root, frond and even seed with delicious results. Its flavour is aromatic, sweet and redolent of licorice; indeed, fennel seed is served after meals in some cultures to be chewed as a breath-freshener.
Renata plans to bring the last of her fennel in this weekend; it’s had a great season but is now beginning to go to seed, so this will be your last chance this year to enjoy this wonderful locally grown vegetable. Or is it an herb? Depending on how you use it, it can be considered either.
The bulb at the base is the most like celery in appearance and is considered a vegetable. Wash and slice fennel bulbs; you’ll see that the slices fall apart into pretty crescents a lot like tightly-packed celery stalks. Slices of fennel bulb can be eaten raw in salads, sauteed in stir fries, in stews to give a wonderful subtle flavour, or roasted with other vegetables in the oven or on the bbq. Our favourite method is to cut generous slices of fennel alongside similar-sized chunks of fresh carrot and toss both together with a little oil, salt, pepper and a pinch of white sugar before roasting them in a baking pan. The flavour of the fennel combines with the sugar and the natural sweetness of the carrots to make an easy side-dish that looks great and tastes wonderful.
The fronds at the top, providing they haven’t gone to seed (and they will look just like dill umbrels when they do) look just like dill weed. They can be chewed for fresh breath, laid over cooked meats for a fragrant garnish, chopped into salads and stews for a marvelous texture and hint of licorice, and added to pickling mixes for a twist of flavour. Look for the younger fronds, closer to the stem, as they will be more tender than fully-mature ones.
Fennel seed, roasted, is often served as a final course in certain Eastern cultures to sweeten diners’ breath. Its warm, sweet aroma of licorice settles stomachs as well. You’ll find candied fennel seeds in some bulk stores locally, and some local East Indian restaurants have been known to serve them to customers as they pay their tabs. Fennel seed is the key ingredient in hot Italian sausage and, ground and steeped, is known to make a tea that aids in digestion and digestive functions.