With aromatic licorice notes and its distinctive bulbous base, long stalks and feathery fronds, fennel is sometimes known as "sweet anise" — but is of no relation to the pungent aniseed plant. There are two types of fennel: Florence fennel (which is often confused with sweet anise) and common fennel. Common fennel supplies the seeds that flavor foods and liqueurs and are used to produce medicinal fennel.
Cooking with Fennel
Supplying vitamins A and C, dietary fiber and potassium, the entire fennel plant is edible. While fennel's sweet, crisp bulb adds a refreshing, crunchy touch to salads, it also can be roasted, grilled, sautéed, braised or baked. The stems and leaves, which feature the subtle licorice flavor fennel is known for, are not to be forgotten.
Note that when the vegetable is cooked, the licorice flavor becomes lighter. Fronds can be used as a garnish or a bed to roast fish or other meats, or chop and use them in place of parsley and dill in sauces and soups.
Fennel's Medicinal History
Fennel — particularly the small, dried fruits (also called fennel seeds) and the essential (volatile) oil extracted from the plant — has a long history as a folk remedy. For medicinal purposes, fennel is best known as a digestive aid to treat feelings of fullness, dyspepsia, flatulence or spastic disorders of the gastrointestinal tract.
However, clinical information on the effectiveness of fennel is limited. Preliminary evidence indicates it may stimulate gastrointestinal motility or act as an antispasmodic. Potential adverse reactions to fennel extract include nausea, vomiting, pulmonary edema, allergic reactions affecting the skin, such as dermatitis or photodermatitis, seizures and cross-sensitivity in individuals who are allergic to carrots, celery or related plants. There also are numerous potential drug interactions with fennel extract. Because the extract of fennel lowers arterial blood pressure, combining it with antihypertensive medication could be dangerous. Additionally, fennel has been shown to reduce the absorption, distribution and elimination of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin; avoid consuming the vegetable when taking this antibiotic.
Individuals with hormone-sensitive conditions such as breast, uterine and ovarian cancer and using the drug Tamoxifen also should avoid fennel due to its estrogenic compounds.
Fennel is available year-round. Look for small, heavy, white bulbs that are firm and free of cracks, browning or moist areas. The stalks should be crisp with feathery, bright-green fronds. Store fennel unwashed for up to five days in a closed container or plastic bag in the coolest section of the refrigerator. Fennel seeds, both whole and ground, can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to six months.