Fennel is a showoff in the produce aisle, with its bright white bulb and profusion of green, feathery fronds. Folklore claims it wards off supernatural intruders in the garden, but we'll focus on what it does in the kitchen.
Commercially, fennel is grown mostly for its seeds, the characteristic flavor in Italian sausage. It's native to the Mediterranean, and Florence fennel is the type you'll likely find in markets. It has a crisp texture and tastes mildly like licorice. (Some stores label it anise, but anise is a different plant.) Look for specimens with crisp, clean bulbs with no sign of browning; foliage should be green.
Cooks are concerned mainly with the bulb. To prepare fennel, cut off stems and leaves. You'll reveal a triangular core in the bulb—cut it away just as you'd core a cabbage. In salads, shaved raw fennel pairs beautifully with citrus. Roasted or stewed, its licorice flavor mellows. In the interest of root-to-tip dining, freeze the mild-tasting stems for flavoring soup, or chop for salads (it's nearly as mild as celery.) Fennel fronds make a lovely garnish.
In the 9th century, Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman emperor, ordered fennel to be grown in the south of France. If you're planting a garden, you might issue a similar edict-fennel is easy to grow. You'll have harvests throughout summer, bulbs will continue to grow after the first several frosts, and you can collect seeds to dry for the pantry. Some gardeners think fennel's too pretty to harvest-in Southern zones, it can serve as an ornamental perennial.
—By Jo Marshall, Creator of CookCabulary