It’s an herb. It’s a vegetable. Or is it both?
Fennel, a hardy, perennial herb grown as a vegetable crop with yellow flowers and feathery leaves in the parsley/celery carrot family, has been widely cultivated beyond its origins on the shores of the Mediterranean. The leaves on a fennel plant look similar to dill but the flavor is quite different. The bulb, foliage and seeds of the fennel plant are used in many of the culinary traditions around the world because of its versatility.
Aromatic fennel, along with similar-tasting anise, is a key ingredient in absinthe. Fennel’s aniseed flavor comes from anethole, an aromatic compound is also found in star anise. Dried fennel seed is used as an aromatic spice, brown or green in color when fresh, slowly turning a dull grey as the seed ages. Fennel seeds are the primary flavor component in Italian sausage and added to tomato sauce.
In Northeast Florida, you can find Florence fennel (or finocchio in Italian) at farmers markets during the cooler months. This variety has a bulb-like stem base that is used as a vegetable. Raw fennel bulb is crispy and slightly sweet. Both the bulb and the leaves can be served in salads and slaws. Fennel can also be sautéed, braised, stewed, grilled or in a gratinee with Gruyere cheese.