By Chelsea Fisher
Fragrant fennel has been used for centuries to ward off stomachaches and evil spirits. Atypical in American cuisine, this licorice-like bulb has an honored place at the table throughout Europe — and with good reason.
Along with a fresh, crunchy consistency to rival celery, fennel provides considerable amounts of vitamin C, folate, and potassium. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, this yellow-flowering herb contains flavonoids, antioxidant compounds that may help lower risk of heart disease and cancer. More recently, the phytonutrient anethole, responsible for the flavor of fennel, anise, and camphor, has been studied for its cancer-deterring abilities. The cancer journal Oncogene reports that anethole can block inflammation and carcinogenesis, the initiation of cancer formation.
A word to the wise: Its nutritional value notwithstanding, fennel finds itself at the center of a biochemical controversy. The autumn herb contains controversial phytoestrogens (plant estrogens that may mimic the human hormone), made famous by their presence in soy. Many studies have examined the link between phytoestrogens and cancer, but the results leave the health-conscious among us a bit flummoxed. The hormones apparently can both help prevent and cause breast cancer. For now, the verdict is that until we see more definitive data it’s best to take the same sensible approach to plants with phytoestrogens as we should with all foods: Everything in moderation.
All parts of the fennel plant are edible. The bulb offers a mild a taste and can be added raw to salads or braised for a delicious side. The stalks can be used like celery and are a great addition to soups. The fronds on top are often used as an herb, and can be chopped and sprinkled atop many dishes, as you might do with dill or parsley. Even the dried seeds are used as a spice. Make sure when choosing fennel that the bulb is white and firm, the leaves are green, and the stalks are sturdy. Fennel can be stored in the refrigerator for about a week.
Fennel bulbs work well chopped or sliced thin, then tossed with grapefruit or blood orange and lemon vinaigrette to make a simple salad. When cooked, fennel becomes more subtle and sweet and is a great addition to cooked salads and soup. Fennel is also delicious paired with fish, try adding it to our Fish en Papillote, or roasted with chicken. For one of our favorites try CFYL’s Fennel Scented Squash Soup.