Every part of a fennel plant -- including the bulbs, stalks, leaves and seeds -- can be used in cooking. It contributes a crisp taste reminiscent of licorice or star anise. Fennel is often paired with fish or other seafood, but it can also be used fresh in salads or in meat dishes such as meatballs and lasagna.
The bulbs are the white parts on the bottom of the fennel plant. They can be chopped up and put fresh into salads. The bulb, however, has a particularly sharp taste. It mellows with cooking, so you may want to blanch the bulbs in boiling water for a minute before adding them to the salad. They can also be roasted and eaten on their own or with a mix of other vegetables as a side dish.
The stalks of the fennel plant are not commonly eaten on their own, but they are used in cooking. They have the same distinctive taste as the other parts of the plant. Some cooks make lattices of fennel stalks to serve as mats when grilling fish. You can also add the stalks to the boiling water that you use to cook poached fish. Both methods impart the anise flavor to the fish. Oily fish, such as mackerel, is well suited to fennel flavoring.
Some cooks use fennel leaves to flavor dishes because they give a lighter flavor and a different texture than do bulbs. They can be stuffing for fish, for example. Fennel leaves do not have as strong a flavor as the bulbs, and they lose it quickly when cooked. If you are using fennel leaves in a cooked dish, add them near the end of the cooking time. That way they can lend flavor to the dish without losing it to the temperature.
Fennel seeds are often used as a spice. You can buy them whole or ground, and you can grind whole seeds yourself or add them to a recipe without grinding for texture as well as flavor. The seeds are used in heavy dishes, such as meatballs and breads. Some people brew fennel seeds into herbal tea, which believers in herbal medicine take to aid in digestion. Fennel seeds also provide the flavor for some anise liqueurs.
- Photo Credit organic fennel image by FJ Medrano from Fotolia.com