Winter’s the time for building hardiness. It’s a time for nourishing warm foods that stoke the inner fire. One of my favorite winter and all-year-long herbs is a woefully underutilized plant: fennel.
Foeniculum vulgare features in Mediterranean cuisine, as it is a native to that area, and Europeans have a hundred-and-one ways to use it. Fennel is naturalized here, grows well in the home garden, and can be found in most groceries stores. Unfortunately, some Americans are familiar with it only as a natural toothpaste flavor.
As a child in a family of immigrants, I grew up with fennel, as a part of life. The whole family would gather for the Sunday meal, which went on for hours. Such mealtimes were used as a way to catch up with each other, play cards, argue politics or lament the injustices of the world. After several rounds of food and dessert, out would come the raw fennel (or in Italian, finocchio (pronounced in my family as “finuk” — some of the Naples-based, old-school Italians routinely drop the vowels off of most words). The fennel would be cut up with a knife right at the table, in a ritual of sorts, and soaked in a glass of wine to be eaten over the next several hours as the visiting went on.
Fennel is in the same family as parsley, dill, caraway, celery and anise. In fact, fresh fennel bulb tastes like a cross between celery and anise. The whole plant — made up of the bulb, foliage, and seeds — can be used in various ways. Here are some suggestions:
• The raw bulbs can be used in vegetable juice along with celery, cucumber, carrots, etc. It lends the juice a refreshing and subtle licorice flavor.
• The bulbs can be eaten raw, similar to celery.
• Roasting the bulbs brings out a whole new flavor. Slice the bulb into quarters, rub with olive oil and a little balsamic vinegar, lay on a cookie sheet and roast for 40 minutes.
• Delicious alone or add to a salad.
• The famous “Herbes de Provence” features fennel seed, along with savory, basil, thyme and lavender. This is a great mixture for meats of any kind, vegetable sautes and stews.
• Many Middle Eastern dishes use fennel as a seasoning, and it’s even in the C• hinese 5-spice powders.
• Lovers of Indian food will recognize the roasted fennel seeds mixed with candies that offered as an after-meal digestive aid and breath freshener.
Fennel seeds, with their aromatic oils, stimulate digestion and warm the entire digestive tract. It’s perfectly safe for all ages and can be used, with the proper preparation, to ease colic in infants. It’s also helpful for colds and flu to stimulate and move mucus, and it is helpful to breastfeeding mothers increase milk flow.
One of the best ways to release the aromatic oils in fennel seeds is to roast them. This also brings out a nuttier, warmer, licorice-like taste of the seeds. I like to buy fresh seeds and roast them at home myself in small batches so they stay fresh. I keep them in a jar on the table so everyone can enjoy some after a meal.
Roasting them is so easy:
1. Use fresh and organic fennel seeds.
2. Thinly cover in just one layer the bottom of a small baking dish.
3. Set the oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
4. Place in the oven for 10 minutes, checking oven.
5. When they start to turn from green to golden or brown pull them out.
6. Let them cool completely.
7. Store in a jar.
Chew a small amount at the end of meal as desired. Enjoy!
Lee Warren is a homesteader, herbalist, writer and the manager of Imani Farm, a pasture-based cooperative farm at Earthaven Ecovillage. She is also a co-founder of the Village Terraces CoHousing Neighborhood and the Program Coordinator for the Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference (sewisewomen.com).