Fragrant Fennel: A Culinary and Medicinal Wonder Plant

Fragrant Fennel: A Culinary and Medicinal Wonder PlantFennel’s medicinal properties were discovered long ago when it was cultivated as an herb and spice by the Ancients. In the first century, the Roman naturalist Pliny attributed no less than 22 remedial properties to it, observing that serpents eat it “when they cast their old skins, and they sharpen their sight with the juice by rubbing against the plant.” It has since been used for treating eye strain and irritations, and many older herbalists still espouse the theory of fennel’s peculiarly strengthening effect on one’s sight.

Used externally, it was thought to convey longevity and to give strength and courage. Fennel stalks and small branches were woven into crowns and worn by soldiers and warriors, not only to protect them in battle but to honour them as heroes.

In Medieval times, fennel was thought to prevent witchcraft and bunches were hung over doorways on Midsummer’s Eve to ward off evil spirits. It was also used in amulets. There are many references to its curative powers as a remedy for “serpent bites”. Fennel was also used extensively by the Chinese and Hindus throughout history as a snake-bite remedy and to help neutralize the poisons in various plants and vegetables, such as mushrooms and toadstools, hemlock, woody nightshade, opium, and cuckoo pint. Later on, the Puritans dubbed fennel seed as the “meeting seed” and chewed it through their long church services to help dispel hunger pains and sweeten the breath.

However, fennel’s primary recognition has come from its use as a culinary herb, and for its great medicinal value on the digestive system. It is often noted that fennel seeds and leaves boiled in water and their liquid were thought to relieve hiccups and shortness of breath, serve as a blood cleanser, amend the ill colour of the face after illness, to abate the tendency to grow fat, and for boosting the production of milk in nursing mothers.

Today, we know that the major constituents of fennel, due to the terpenoid anethole, are found in the volatile oil. Anethole inhibits spasms in smooth muscles such as those in the intestinal tract, making it a carminative which helps to relieve gas. Therefore, whether it is crushed seeds, fennel tea, or powder sealed in capsules (as herbal supplements), fennel is often used in purgative and laxative formulas to offset their tendency to intestinal griping. Fennel water has properties similar to dill water – if it is mixed with bicarbonate of soda and some simple syrup, these waters constitute the classic ‘Gripe water’ used in treating colic and flatulence in infants. This is one of fennel’s greatest attributes – it can make the taste of bitter herbs more tolerable, especially to children, and its aromatic quality gives it some activity as a ‘catalyst’ for other herbs. In fact, anyone of any age with a stomach ache can benefit from using fennel, producing exceptional relief when combined in a tincture form with catnip. Chewing on fennel fruit (seeds) aids in digestion and fennel can help those afflicted with gout (problems with uric acid), thereby making an excellent blood cleanser and good overall tonic.

A few sprigs of fresh fennel steeped in boiling water makes for a good tea high in vitamin C. The aromatic compounds in fennel act as an antiseptic, helping with hoarseness and laryngitis. And when cooled, it makes an excellent and soothing eye wash!

While fennel can be used to benefit anyone, the related compounds to anethole suggest estrogenic actions which can be quite helpful before, during or after pregnancy, and when nursing it helps mothers to produce more milk.

Therapeutic grade fennel essential oil is the oil extracted from fennel seeds by steam distillation and is the most fragrant essence of the plant in its purest, most concentrated state. Not only does fennel essential oil have wonderful aromatherapy properties, a sniff directly from the bottle can help to curb the appetite (use in moderation for it is easily overpowering). Creating a sense of satiety and ‘fullness’ in the stomach, fennel essential oil is a top-notch weight loss scent. Or try adding a drop or two to aromatherapy blends that lack warmth. The scent is not only revitalizing, it is restorative, purifying, cleansing and balancing. Fennel essential oil blends well with scents of rose geranium, rose, sandalwood, ylang ylang and lavender.

There are health benefits for animals, too. Fennel is often mixed with cattle fodder for extra nourishment. Fleas absolutely hate fennel, so in its powdered form it can be sprinkled on pets and aids in keeping kennels, animal pens and stables fresh, clean and pest-free.

This stately herb also looks and smells beautiful in flower gardens and in floral arrangements. Bronze fennel, another variety, with its lacy, coppery leaves heavily scented with licorice, is an excellent butterfly attractor and makes a lovely tea just as sweet fennel does – a great afternoon pick-me-up when combined with rosemary!

Perfume and spice up your everyday existence by scenting your bathing water, powders, massage oils, sachets and potpourris with dried fennel leaves and seeds, or combine with other herbs such as mint, angelica and thyme in open topped containers to scent the rooms in your house.

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE FENNEL PLANT

There are two types of fennel grown: common fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, a hardy biennial that often becomes a perennial in favourable climates, and is most often used as an herb; and Florence fennel, Foeniculum vulgare azoricum, grown for its bulbous leaf stalks and most often used as a vegetable. Here we will be talking about the common variety, also called sweet fennel.

Sweet fennel is part of the Parsley family and originally hails from the Mediterranean. During the course of time it spread, basically following civilization, and naturalized in many parts of the world. Fennel is cultivated as a commercial crop, mostly in India, China, Egypt and Turkey. It is also grown in western Canada and according to Connie Kehler, Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Herb and Spice Association, the cultivated production of seed fennel is important to the province’s economy.

The bouquet of fennel is sweet, warm and aromatic. As an herb and spice, its flavour is similar to a mild anise or licorice. In its wild state, willowy fennel reaches anywhere from 5 to 8 feet in height and has thick but hollow shiny green stems and feathery branches that hold golden-yellow flowers which bloom on very showy umbels with thirteen to twenty rays. These flowers, as well as the leaves, look similar to dill and are used in much the same way – usually as a culinary herb. Most times the flower heads are collected before the seeds ripen and are threshed out when completely dried. The sweetly-flavoured ridged seeds look somewhat like plumped up cumin seeds, but generally are a little longer; about 1/8 to 5/16 inch long. Sometimes fennel seeds split in two, one remaining on the stalk, with different plants yielding colours varying from a light, pale green to a dullish brown. They are usually used whole or ground in a spice mill or with a mortar and pestle.

The much sought-after fennel pollen is collected from wild fennel when the flowers are at the peak of bloom. The flowers are picked and carefully dried and then screened for pollen. Fennel pollen is like fennel seeds intensified a hundred times and just a pinch is added directly to foods, unlike the seeds which must either be ground or crushed to extract their flavour. Adding a burst of flavour to foods like roasted vegetables or seafood dishes, fennel pollen can also be used as a dry rub for meats or as a substitute for saffron in risotto, rice or pasta dishes. In Italy it is used to make fennel pollen pesto. Be aware that fennel pollen is not cheap; its rarity, proclaimed intensity and hyperbole have elevated it to cult status. Luckily a little goes a long way. One other caveat is that airborne fennel pollen may have the same impact that any pollen has on one who is allergic. However, once in prepared food, it becomes inert and adds flavour just as any other spice would, without any consequences.

CULTIVATION AND HARVEST

Fennel is easily grown from seed sown directly into well-drained, rich soil (add lime if the pH is below 6.0) in full sun. It is usually planted in early spring to give the plants sufficient time to flower and go to seed, but is also planted in late summer for a fall crop in certain climates. Give the plants plenty of room and do not plant near beans, tomatoes, caraway, wormwood, coriander or dill for they don’t do well together. Fennel is so closely related to dill that if planted near one another they may cross-pollinate, resulting in dilly fennel! Once fennel is established it does well, even in drought-like conditions.

When they are about 6 inches high and before they flower, one can pick some leaves from the tops of the plants, but only from the first 2 inches, so they will continue to grow well. Place stems in a jar of water and cover loosely with a plastic bag. Stowed in this way, bunches of fennel will stay fresh and vibrant for nearly one week in your refrigerator. Fennel leaves also freeze well – just put some in small plastic bags and seal.

The seeds should be harvested as they ripen so they do not scatter. Do this by putting the flower heads in a paper bag until completely dried, then store in glass jars with tight-fitting lids for up to six months for the best flavour.

COOKING WITH FENNEL

Mention fennel to most people and the first thing that comes to mind are the unique flavours of sweet Italian sausage and the dry salami, finocchiona. While the addition of fennel certainly ‘autographs’ these specialties, the possibilities do not stop there. Frequently used in concert with other spices, as  in Chinese Five Spice Powder, Herbs de Provence, and Indian curry powders, fennel seeds possess the unique ability to hit both sweet and savoury notes simultaneously. Fennel flowers sprinkled into a salad make a stunning and tasty garnish, or add to herbal vinegars, dips, marinades or your favourite olive oil to spice them up, then give as gifts to friends and family. Freshly picked leaves own a flavour far more precious than dried fennel, so add some to mayonnaise as the French do, or to tomato sauces towards the end of cooking as do the Italians. Slavic cultures often add fennel seeds to pickles, sauerkraut or their potato soups for added flavour and zing.

Dried fennel combined with crumbled dried mint and rosemary makes a fantastic barbeque sprinkle that complements grilled duck breast or fish steaks, or add to lentil or veggie burgers for a unique and flavourful change of pace.

I have found that fennel seeds crushed to fine powder help to cut the oiliness of foods, so I sprinkle it over fried potatoes, eggplant and beef dishes. A little fennel mixed with yogurt is excellent poured over a nut roast made from an oily nut, like Brazil nuts. Fennel is particularly kind to the flavours of wild game and is traditionally considered one of the best herbs for fish.

One can use whole fennel stalks in a wood smoker or lay some branches over coals when grilling fish, meats or even vegetables. They will burn, then smoulder, imparting a sweet, smoky flavour to your food. Fennel seeds also burn, so try serving roasted chicken or fish on a bed of fennel seeds and when presenting, flame in cognac or brandy – as the seeds burn they will give a truly exquisite flavour to the food that is almost beyond description.

The English are famous for adding fennel seeds to fish dishes, especially as a court bouillon for poaching seafood. Adding fennel to fish chowders will absolutely transform them. The stems and leaves can be stuffed into the cavity of a duck, goose or whole fish (trout and salmon being excellent choices) before roasting for added flavour, then sprinkle some chopped fennel leaves over the meat before serving.

Fennel seeds are often pounded to a paste and added to bread dough, cakes and confectionary for flavour.

In some Indian restaurants, fennel seeds are glazed with sugar and presented between courses as a palate cleanser or offered as an after dinner breath freshener. I like to add a little fennel to sweetened cream cheese and serve it with sliced fresh figs as a snack, or I add a pinch of powdered fennel to a vinaigrette and drizzle it over warm poached pears and serve as dessert – or as an elegant holiday appetizer. The choice is yours.

Liqueurs such as fennouillette, gin, and akvavit are flavoured with fennel and it is also used in distilling absinthe. And while you can easily purchase one of the readily available, commercial flavoured vodkas, it is just as easy to prepare your own. Just add 1 tablespoon slightly bruised fennel seeds to a 750ml bottle of good quality vodka, let rest for 3 to 5 hours, then strain, chill and serve. It makes for an interesting change of pace and is wonderfully refreshing!

RECIPES

Foods from the northern state of Kashmiri in India have a distinctive taste – built on the flavour of roasted fennel seeds and dried ginger. Garam masala is a spice blend that usually consists of the warm spices coriander, cumin, cloves, cinnamon and black pepper, although Indian cooks have their own combinations, often from old family recipes. The first recipe here is a popular spice blend used in curries (any dish with a sauce) and the second recipe turns a few vegetables into a meal by way of a raita, which is a dish that consists of yogurt enriched with something – sometimes ingredients are as simple as salt and black pepper, other times more savoury, perhaps meats or legumes.


RESOURCES

The Saskatchewan Herb and Spice Association (SHSA) was formed in 1991 and has achieved national prominence in promoting the herb and spice industry. An Herb Spice Production Manual can be purchased from SHSA for herb growers or those with an above average level of curiosity. The association also holds one or more educational seminars every year. Feel free to contact them; the SHSA takes pride in answering any questions you may have and responds in a timely fashion.

Saskatchewan Herb and Spice Association

Box 18, Phippen, Saskatchewan SOK 3E0, Telephone: (306) 398-2918, E-mail: Lonewolf@sasktel.net, Website: www.saskherbspice.org

Another helpful organization:

Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) Agricultural Information Contact Centre

1 Stone Rd. W., 4th Floor NE, Guelph ON N1G 4Y2

Telephone: 1-877-424-1300

Seeds of Diversity is Canada’s premiere seed exchange and is dedicated to the conservation, documentation and use of public domain non-hybrid plants of Canadian significance. This is a great place to purchase fennel seeds as well as other herb seeds, fruit and vegetable seeds, ornamental flowers and even some grains. They are a living gene bank. There is a free email bulletin and various publications available for ordering.

Contact: Seeds of Diversity Canada, P.O. Box 36, Stn. Q, Toronto ON M4T 2L7, Telephone: 1-866-509-SEED, email: mail@seeds.ca, website: www.seeds.ca


Recipes

Spice Blend: Kashmiri Garam Masala

(Makes about 1 cup)

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup fennel seeds
  • 1/4 cup black cumin seeds
  • 2 Tbsp black peppercorns
  • 1 Tbsp green cardamom seeds
  • 1/2 tsp saffron threads
  • 1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 Tbsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp ground mace or nutmeg

1) In a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, roast together the fennel seeds, cumin seeds, peppercorns, cardamom seeds and saffron threads, stirring and shaking the pan until heated and fragrant, about two minutes. Let cool, then grind to a fine powder in a spice mill.

2) Transfer the mixture to a bowl and add the cinnamon, ginger, cloves and mace. Mix, then transfer the mixture back to the skillet and roast this mixture over medium-high heat until heated through once more.

3) Let cool completely and store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. It will keep about one month at room temperature and about one year if refrigerated.


Kashmiri Mushroom Raita

I like to serve this dish as a main course with a side of thinly sliced cucumbers garnished with roasted cashews and lots of garlicky flat bread. (Makes about 4 servings)

Ingredients

  • 2 large potatoes
  • 2-1/2 teaspoons Kashmiri Garam Masala
  • 3 cups low fat, plain yogurt whisked until smooth
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion cut in half and thinly sliced
  • 1 pound fresh mushrooms; white button, Portobello, etc.
  • 1/4 cup freshly minced cilantro

1) In a large saucepan of salted water, boil the potatoes in their jackets until fork tender, then chop finely and set aside.

2) In a large bowl, add the Kashmiri garam masala to the yogurt and mix well. Taste and add some sea salt if necessary.

3) Warm the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the onions. Stir gently and saute for a few minutes until soft, then add the mushrooms and saute for another five minutes. Add the potato and cilantro to the mushrooms and onion, mixing well, and continue cooking another three minutes. Transfer the mixture to the seasoned yogurt. Mix well and garnish with some additional Kashmiri garam masala if desired. Serve.


Fennel Tea Blend

A nutritious daily drink with an unusual punch that is great by the cup, pot or pitcher. Sure to be a family favourite, mix it with fruit juice and serve as a healthy beverage for kids. Use two rounded teaspoonfuls of tea for each cup of boiling water or to taste.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup dried fennel leaves
  • 1 cup dried lemon balm
  • 1 cup dried pineapple sage

1) Gently toss together the herbs and store in an airtight container until ready to use.


Conchiglie with Chives, Fennel and Mayonnaise

Dress this lovely pasta salad in advance so the flavours have a chance to develop. (Makes 4 to 6 servings)

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound dried conchiglie or any large pasta shells
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 bunch chives, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup freshly chopped fennel leaves or 1 tsp finely ground fennel powder
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1) Cook the pasta according to package directions until al dente. Drain immediately and put in a large bowl. Add the mayonnaise, chives, fennel leaves, salt and pepper. Toss gently and adjust the seasonings if necessary. Leave to cool and serve at room temperature.


Savoury Olive and Fennel Cake

The perfect appetizer served cut into thick wedges like a cake.

(Makes 6 servings)

Ingredients

  • 2 cups (self-rising) whole grain flour
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 4 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 3/4 cup white wine
  • 1 cup sliced pitted green olives
  • 1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
  • 1 Tbsp finely crushed fennel seeds
  • Fresh fennel flowers for garnishing (optional)

1) Preheat the oven to 450°F (232°C) and grease an 8-inch cake pan.

2) Put the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Add the eggs, then stir in the wine and the oil. Mix well, then stir in the olives, cheese and fennel seeds.

3) Spoon the mixture into the cake pan and bake for 10 minutes at 450°F, then reduce the temperature to 350°F (180°C) for about 55 minutes, or until the cake is golden, and has shrunk from the sides of the pan. Serve immediately garnished with fennel flowers if desired.

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