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Don't Forget the Fennel

If you've never cooked with fennel, you're not alone. For years, I avoided the bulbous green and white vegetable labeled "sweet anise" because I associated it with black licorice. Who in their right mind would want to taste black licorice at the dinner table?

But then I learned anise and "sweet anise" are two very different things. Anise is a pungent pint-sized herb, while "sweet anise" — or fennel — is a hearty vegetable with a thick, bulbous base and celery-like stems that grow upward to 5 feet tall. It has a sweeter, more delicate flavor than anise.

Fennel's subtle flavor works just fine on its own, but does wonders when combined with other foods. Indeed, fennel's strength may be its power to blend and enhance other flavors. Tuna tastes more tuna-like when cooked with fennel. A simple salad of oranges, red onion and lemon vinaigrette has more zing with the addition of crunchy, raw fennel. Grilled sea bass becomes emblematic of Mediterranean cuisine when stuffed with lemon slices and fennel fronds.

The fennel in the produce section of a grocery store is Florence fennel, or finocchio. On top are fragrant emerald fronds that look much like dill. Below are stout stalks that resemble celery and shoot upward like fingers being counted. The edible white "bulb" is actually not a bulb at all, but tightly stacked leaves that unpack like the base of a celery stalk.

Though all parts of the Florence fennel are edible, the stalks tend to be fibrous, like celery, while the fronds can have an anise intensity that might turn off some people. The thick white leaves of the base offer the most versatile use. When cooked, the leaves become supple, the same way onions lose their firmness, and retain only a faint hint of anise.

If you have never tried fennel as a vegetable, you've almost certainly tasted it in its other form: a spice. The greenish-brown seeds from the variety called common fennel are used to season Italian sausages, meaty stews and rustic breads. When ground up, the spice is used in rubs for fish, pork and lamb dishes and in other spice mixes. Fennel spice also is a key ingredient in Indian curries and is one of the five essential spices in Chinese five-spice powder.

And if all this isn't enough, this versatile vegetable has been used throughout history to cure stomach ailments, freshen breath and help fight weight gain. It also is high in vitamin C.

So if, like me, you've passed fennel by in the produce section, take a second look.

Read last week's Kitchen Window.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Yoon