Growing up in an Italian household, fennel, or finocchio, was a staple on our autumn table. It wasn’t until I grew up that I discovered that it was rarely used in American cuisine. Well, I’m here to tell you that this is a vegetable not to be missed.
Originating in the Mediterranean, fennel is a perennial when grown in favorable climes and a biennial when growing conditions are less than ideal. The most common varieties are sweet fennel and Florence fennel, which are quite similar and have been used as a vegetable, a herb and as medicine in ancient times. Fennel was particularly prized by the ancient Romans and Greeks and was considered to be a symbol of victory and success. In fact, in ancient Rome, fennel was enjoyed for its delicious flavor, but was also believed to sharpen eyesight.
With a slightly sweet flavor, reminiscent of anise or licorice, fennel is most often associated with Italian cuisine, as it is so commonly used in a wide variety of recipes—from soups to side dishes, salads and main courses, “finocchio” is something most Italian cooks can not live without.
The base of the fennel plant is composed of pale green, striated overlapping leaves that spring out of a fleshy bulb and is topped with several, robust stalks, out of which springs many long, feathery leaves that are dark green in color and supported by tiny stems. So when you’re buying fennel, look for a uniformly, pale whitish bulb, topped by luxurious green leaves.
Used raw or cooked, fennel is as versatile as it is delicious. As an ingredient in a variety of dishes or as a side dish that stands on its own, fennel is easy to work with and adds a unique sparkle to any recipe. An excellent source of potassium, vitamin C, magnesium, folic acid, calcium and phosphorous, fennel is also thought to have diuretic properties, to soothe gastric discomfort and to cleanse the system.
Here’s my favorite way to serve this incredible vegetable.
Italian Braised Fennel
A hearty side dish, no one has to know you’re helping strengthen their digestion as they enjoy!
Makes 2-3 servings
extra virgin olive oil
2-3 cloves fresh garlic, thinly sliced
1 red onion, thinly sliced into half moon pieces
1 fennel bulb, stalks removed, leaves reserved, bulb thinly sliced
3-4 plum tomatoes, quartered, do not seed or peel
dry white wine
grated zest of 1 lemon
2-3 sprigs fresh parsley, finely minced
Place a small amount of oil, garlic and onion in a deep skillet and turn heat to medium. When the vegetables begin to sizzle, add a pinch of salt and sauté until the onions are limp. Add fennel, tomatoes, about a cup of wine and lemon zest. Stir gently, season lightly with salt and cover. Reduce heat to low and cook until fennel is tender, about 20 minutes. Remove cover, adjust seasoning to your taste and raise heat to high, cooking away any remaining liquid. Remove from heat, stir in parsley and serve.