Friday, December 16, 2011

Eating Omily: More Than You Ever Wanted to Know about Fennel vs. Anise

I don't often write ingredient-focused Eating Omily posts. Usually I wax proseic about the simple beauty of eating what your hunter-gatherer ancestors would have eaten (roughly) if they lived in your area. But, I think this is worth while, because this particular ingredient is so consistently over-looked, and it's just so damn versatile and delicious!

Ever hear of fennel? Perhaps you've seen fennel seed on the spice shelf at the grocery? I'm willing to bet dollars to donuts that you haven't seen a fennel label in your produce department because it's almost always mis-labeled anise, which, frankly, I expect is enough to scare any potential eater off. Anise is a different plant entirely from which we get the flavor of licorice. Fennel certainly has some flavor similarities to anise, and in fact both are related to parsley, but they are distinct species.

In fact, there's the plant, fennel, which I'm primarily talking about, the herb, anise, whose seeds we use for licorice flavor, and there's the herb, fennel, whose seeds we ALSO use for a milder licorice flavor. Fennel seeds are fabulous in biscotti, by the way. And then there's STAR anise, you know, those adorable star-shaped pods that are also licoricey. Those come from a tree common to Asia, and aren't related to fennel the veggie, fennel the herb, anise the herb, or parsley! Personally I don't think it was such a good idea to call any and every thing that tastes like licorice anise regardless of genetic relations, but you know, nobody asked me. Now that I've blown your mind with the variety of anise and fennel-related things out there, let me set you straight with some photographic evidence.

This is fennel, the plant that you consume as a vegetable.

This is anise, the plant that you do not eat as a vegetable. It is an herb (or a herb, if you prefer).

These are anise seeds, the part of the anise plant that we use, generally in sweet recipes, or in curries.

This is the herb, fennel, from which we get fennel seeds. This picture should show you the commonality between the veggie, fennel, and the herb, anise.

These are fennel seeds from the herb, not the veggie, fennel. Again, distinctive from, yet similar to, anise seeds from the herb, anise.

This is parsley. Fennel the veggie, fennel the herb, and anise the herb are all related to the herb, parsley.

And this, last one, I promise, is star anise. It's often used in curries, and in spiced or mulled beverages, steeped whole in it's star-shaped pod, and it grows on a tree. It shares NO relation to any of the above plants, just a similar flavor profile. (Except parsley, parsley, though related to all of the above plants, with the exception of star anise, does not taste licoricey. You'll notice however, that both basil and tarragon do have a bit of licorice flavor. Clearly it's a common flavor in the plant kingdom.)

SO, with an introduction, and prestigious lineage, like that, fennel must be something special, right?? I think so. I cooked up a whole bulb of it as the veggie course to our Thanksgiving dinner my first semester in college (that was 2005), when my family came up to cook with me and visit. They had one taste and said no thanks. I ate it all myself. So I guess what I'm saying is, it's a distinctive flavor. There's nothing I can compare it to. In terms of texture and cooking nature it's a bit leeky, but in terms of flavor it's well, a bit licoricey. Intense and crunchy when raw, mild, sweet, and tender when cooked.

This is the fennel I'm talking about, by the way. Have you forgotten? I almost did.
I highly advise you to get out to your Farmer's Market (and don't delay, this is a fall veggie, but not a hearty one that will persist past the first few hard freezes), hack one up, and give it a try! They aren't expensive, and the various parts can be used in various ways.

So, you get the thing home, and now what? It may seem a little complicated to dissect, but it's pretty basic, really. Start by cutting the stalks off of the bulb. These two parts need different cooking methods. If there are any really bruised or sad looking parts on the outside, peel off that outside layer. Otherwise, just give it a wash. I like to slice up the whole bulb into pieces a couple inches long, and maybe a quarter to a half inch thick, cutting off dirty bits from the bottom as I go. Some people will tell you to core the fennel, but I have yet to detect a distinct difference in taste or texture between the core and the rest of the bulb, so I say waste not, want not! The sliced bulb can be tossed with olive oil and roasted with sliced onions, whole peeled garlic cloves, and grated parmesan cheese (yum!) at about 400 for, oh, twenty minutes, half an hour, until tender and a little browned.

It's also great braised with broth or wine and water. You can brown it in the pan with oil or butter first if you like, then add the liquid, just to come maybe half way up the level of the fennel, it won't be much, bring to a simmer, lid it, let it get tender, and then turn the heat up and cook the liquid down to a glaze or syrup. It gets so meltingly tender this way, it's awesome. Some people also like to slice it really thin and toss it into salads. I'm not a fan of licorice, and find that flavor too strong for me in that application, but give it a shot. It's also easy enough to just saute the fennel in some olive oil or butter over medium heat with salt and pepper. It'll retain a bit of crunch this way.

The easiest way to deal with those stalks is to think of them like celery...celery that is far too tough to slather peanutbutter on and eat raw. My go-to way of handling it is to use it as an aromatic in my soup base along with onions. Slice it up into quarter-inch pieces, and toss it into a medium-low heated soup pot with plenty of oil or butter. Let the onions get perfectly tender and sweet (don't worry, the fennel will catch up and it continues to cook in the soup), then add your garlic and herbs, cook a few more minutes, then add your soup liquid, and other ingredients that need time to soften and cook in the broth. It's a milder flavor than celery, but a great companion to the onion.

Those froofy fronds on top are great to add along with any dried herbs to your soups, or as a garnish for salads, soups, appetizers, whatever! They're tender, tasty, and yes, licoricey!

Don't hesitate to play around and get creative with fennel: I've heard of fennel-leek soup, and raw fennel marinated in orange juice. I'm sure there's tons of tasty ways to work with it that I haven't heard of yet.

Hope you have a festive, fennel-packed week!


  1. Thank you for making this all clearer for me, but especially for the yummy roasted fennel recipe! WOW!

  2. You're welcome; I'm glad you enjoyed it! Let me know how your roasted fennel comes out!