With its rounded pale green bulb, short stems, and feathery green leaves, fennel could be mistaken for a plump bunch of celery. The texture, too, is similar, but fennel's flavour emphatically sets it apart from celery and other stalk vegetables. The overlapping layers of bulb, the stems, and the leaves all impart a mild sweet flavour akin to licorice or anise. Because of its taste, fennel is called "anise" in many markets; however, the vegetable is an entirely different plant from the herb anise, which is grown for its seeds and the oil secreted by its leaves (both of which are used as flavourings.) A member of the parsley family, fennel is also known as sweet fennel, Florence fennel, and, in Italian neighbourhoods, finocchio. Europeans, particularly the Italians and the French, have been enthusiastic about fennel for many years, they cultivate more of it than anyone else . Like celery, it is filling and yet very low in calories, so that it provides an excellent snack food for weight watchers. It is also well suited to cooking.
The fennel bulbs should be firm and clean, the stalks straight, and the feathery fronds fresh and green; if flowers are present on the stalks, the bulb is overmature. The bulb should be compact, with the stalks closely spaced rather than spread out. If the stalks have been cut off (which may indicate that the fennel is not perfectly fresh), the cut ends should be fresh looking, not dry and white. Avoid bulbs that show any brown spots or signs of splitting.
Store in the refrigerator, where the vegetable should keep for three to four days.
If you've bought a fennel bulb with the stalks attached, trim them off at the point where they meet the bulb. Set aside the stalks to use in soups and stews, and save the frondlike leaves to use as an herb (as you would use dillweed). Wash the fennel bulb and halve it. Trim the base (but not too closely, or the layers will fall apart), then cut the bulb as needed: into slices (vertically), diced, or cut into chunks for braising or use in soups, or into slivers or sticks for stir-frying, sauteing, or eating raw. You can also carefully remove individual layers of the fennel bulb and cut each into strips or squares. If slicing the bulb vertically, leave the central core intact so that it holds the layers together; if halving, quartering, or slivering the bulb, cut out the dense core, or cut around it and discard.