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.