Fennel lives in a big carrot family, together with other aromatic flowering plants like cow parsley, caraway, celery, coriander, cumin. Yes, they all start with the letter “C”. No, it’s not a general rule, just a cherry-picking. Others are anise, angelica, asafoetida, ajwan. Most of them emit a marked smell when their leaves are crushed and bruised in any other way. Fennel also. We love it for its feathery fragrant leaves and yellow flowers, but it’s also known for its fruits. Of course, everybody knows them – fresh greenish little elliptical thingies, slowly turning yellowish brown, with protruding ridges that smell like liquorice. But wait a minute, isn’t it seeds that we are talking about? That’s right, you might know them as ‘seeds’ but what they really are is tiny little fruits with a very intense, sweet anise-like flavour. The actual seeds are located inside and they are strongly attached to the fruit – hence the mistake.
Commercially, fruits are frequently differentiated as “longs” and “shorts”. But we love them not for their length but for their flavour. People would crush a teaspoon of dried fruits with pestle and mortar, place them into a tea strainer and put it into hot water to let it unfuse with the fennel aroma. Like anise, fennel is traditionally added into bread, cakes, and other baked goods and desserts. But savoury dishes is where its taste truly revealed. Middle Eastern and South Asian cooking can’t imagine their kitchen traditions without this potent spice. In India, it is panch phoron – a whole spice blend consisting of seeds: fenugreek, cumin, nigella, black mustard and fennel in equal parts. In China, it is five-spice powder made from ground star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper and fennel.
Besides leaves and dried fruits, fennel is also loved for its swollen bulb-like leaf base that is used as a vegetable in cooking. It bears the beautiful name Florence fennel or finocchio (in case you are learning Italian). One of the simplest, yet arguably tastiest, dishes that utilizes this flavorful bulb is shaved fennel salad. As the name implies, you need to slice a fennel bulb on a mandoline, paper-thin, then mix these shaves with 2 Tbsp of shaves from Parmesan cheese, 2 Tbsp of extra virgin olive oil, 1 Tbsp of freshly squeezed lemon juice, some chopped fresh thyme or parsley, a pinch or two of sumac, salt and freshly ground black pepper. This salad is light, crispy and refreshing. It has that nice acidity and zing to it. Let it become your perfect starter.