Fennel: Shoots, Seeds … and Memories

In the foothills of California where I grew up, wild fennel is widespread.

by Rick Gush

Fennel shoots; eat them like any other vegetable
Photo by Rick Gush

Fennel: not just an herb. Fennel’s fat lower stems can be added to salads and munched much like celery.

In the foothills of California where I grew up, wild fennel is widespread.

When I was a kid I often ate a bit of the green shoots during my wanderings in the woods.  It was just like having a piece of licorice, albeit in leafy form.  I could also eat some of the crunchy seed heads, either green or dry, and the seeds also had a pleasant licorice taste.

So, fast-forward forty years, and I just harvested a few cultivated fennel from my garden in Italy this week.

I never ate fennel as a vegetable when I lived in the states, and thought it was just an herb or seasoning plant. Here in Italy, big swollen fennel shoots are always for sale in the markets. 

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Because fennel harvesting season is late winter and early spring, it serves as a commonly steamed vegetable in the Italian diet when zucchini are not in season. 

My wife and I eat the swollen lower stems raw in salads, and as a celery stick substitute in snack plates, but mostly we eat fennel steamed with carrots. Delicious with a bit of balsamic vinegar.

In the fall I can harvest fennel seed heads and my wife makes a tea with the seeds. 

Fennel seeds are similar to caraway seeds, both being licorice-tasting. My wife also buys a bread with fennel seeds baked in, sort of like rye bread with caraway seeds, and a cheese with fennel seeds, which is not unlike Monterrey Jack cheese with caraway.

These days I let a few plants in the garden go to flower and the big heads are quite decorative.

Fennel is a member of the Umbelliferae family, all plants that have flower clusters that look sort of like umbrellas.  Carrots are also among the Umbelliferae, and the flowers of these plants have a reputation for attracting butterflies and other beneficial insects to a garden. 

Today I also have a few wild fennel growing on the edges of my garden, but they don’t produce the big swollen stems that cultivated varieties do. Nonetheless I let them stay, because every once in a while I enjoy eating the green leafy shoots while I’m working in the garden.

Tastes good and brings back a pleasant memory from my younger days.

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