Nutrition: Fennel offers a lot of nutrition with few calories. One cup raw sliced fennel bulb contains about 27 calories. This vegetable is very high in vitamin C as well as potassium and dietary fiber. Fennel contains several health-promoting compounds and antioxidants including anethole, which reduces inflammation and may combat cancer.
Selection: Choose firm, unblemished fennel bulbs with bright green leaves still attached. Avoid any with brown spots, cracked bulbs, bruising, dried or porous tips, yellowed leaves, or limp stems. One pound fennel yields about 3/4 pound after trimming.
Storage: Refrigerate wrapped loosely in a plastic bag for up to five days. Wash just before using. Do not expose to extreme cold or the bulbs will turn mushy.
Preparation: Treat fennel like two vegetables in one plant. The white or light green bulb – actually the base of the close-growing stems – is used for most recipes, but the feathery green leaves are a flavorful herb, good in salads or to flavor other foods. (They’re particular tasty with seafood.) The tough stalks can be used to flavor soup or stocks. Dried stalks are used to add aromatic smoke to grilled fish.
Freeze fennel tops: Those feathery leaves can be frozen for later use in soups and sauces. Remove leaves from tough stems and finely chop. Place 1 teaspoon of chopped leaves in each compartment of an ice cube tray. Top with water and freeze. Once solid, transfer fennel cubes to a sealed plastic bag or jar and store in freezer. In soup or sauce recipes, add one cube for every teaspoon of fennel needed.
Freeze the bulb, too: Fennel bulbs should be blanched before freezing. Clean the bulb, removing stalks and leaves. Bring a pot of salted water to a rapid boil. Have ready a bowl of ice water (half ice, half cold water). Cut the bulb into lengthwise quarters or crosswise 1-inch slices. Plunge the cut fennel pieces into boiling water. Boil 30 seconds. Transfer the fennel pieces to the ice water until cool. Drain. Store in sealed bags or containers; freeze. Use within six months.
Fun fennel facts: A close relative of carrots, parsley, dill and anise, fennel is native to the Mediterranean, where it’s been consumed for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians all picked wild fennel for medicinal uses or as decoration. Its strong scent combated other smells. Fennel symbolizes longevity and in these ancient cultures was believed to repel evil spirits.
▪ Italy, which still produces about 85 percent of the world’s fennel supply, gets credit for perfecting fennel for culinary uses. With its white bulbous base, the fennel we know today traces to 15th century Florence. Its seeds are essential for flavoring Italian sausage. Fennel also is one of the primary ingredients in absinthe.
▪ In the 1880s, Italian immigrants brought fennel to California, where it has thrived ever since. Fennel loves California’s Mediterranean climate. So much so, it’s become an invasive weed in parts of Southern California and Catalina Island.