Fennel is a wonderful and gentle medicinal, an extraordinarily versatile vegetable and spice and a tall graceful herb that should be planted and used much more often than it is. Last week, I covered the various types of fennel available to the home gardener and a couple of handy tips for growing this finicky herb. This week’s post is all about how to use fennel as a culinary herb in the kitchen and and and as an effective herbal remedy for every member of your family!
Fennel in the Kitchen
Fennel is an herb, spice, and vegetable all rolled into one beautiful plant. For thousands of years it has been a major component of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Indian, French, Chinese, and Italian cuisine. Although it has recently gained ground in fine dining establishments in the West, fennel is still underutilized by the average American cook.
Part of the problem with fennel is its relative lack of notoriety and availability in US produce markets. Generally, one must live in a large metropolitan area to find fennel bulbs in the produce section with any regularity and pre-packaged fennel seed always takes low priority on grocery store spice racks. Without being exposed to it in real life, most people simply don’t know what to do with fennel.
For starters, all parts of the fennel plant have a sweet, anise-like flavor, but the seeds are by far and away the most flavorful part. In fact, the seeds of fennel are used commercially as “licorice” flavoring in all kinds of products – from candy to liqueur to toothpaste. If you love Italian food, red sauce, spaghetti, or pizza, then you already like fennel seed.
Once I grew my own fennel seed, I found myself using it with abandon in dishes and drinks that I never would have imagined. Fennel seed is a nice addition to brewed black and green teas, in fruit salads, desserts, and pastries. Try it on garlic or cheese bread just before toasting, or top your favorite yeast loaf with a healthy handful of fennel seeds for real culinary treat. I also like to use fennel seed to sweeten bitter herbal teas or to home-made liqueurs
The least used part of fennel is its fine, ferny leaves, which have a light anise flavor with a hint of green freshness thrown in for good measure. Because they are so pretty, fennel leaves are often used to garnish plated dishes and entrees, but the creative cook can dice or shred them before sprinkling them onto cold salads of fruit, vegetables, fish, and poultry. Fennel leaves also add a nice touch to plates of hot rice or pasta. Keep in mind that fennel leaves are always used fresh because they don’t retain their flavor when dried.
If you grow your own bulb fennel, the tender young stalks and the main bulb can be used in any way that you might use celery and in many ways that you would never use celery! The flesh is sweet, delicately crunchy, and has a fresh flavor that can’t be found in any other vegetable. I particularly like them in potato salad, tuna salad, coleslaw, and stir-fry. The bulb can be sectioned and filled with cheese, cream cheese, apples, dates, shrimp salad, or even peanut butter. The sky’s the limit when it comes to dressing up these scrumptious stalks.
In addition to being good appetizers, the bulbs can be chopped, diced, shredded or pureed then added to soup, stew, broth, or consume. They can be also be baked, broiled, braised, roasted, grilled, or caramelized and served or cooked with any type of meat or seafood that one might imagine.
With that kind of versatility, it’s hard to imagine why fennel isn’t a mainstay in every kitchen in America.
The ancient Romans believed that fennel seed reduced the appetite and controlled obesity. Today, it is well-known for being a mild and reliable medicinal that has long been approved by the well-regarded German Commission E. It is a strong anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic, widely used for cramps, spasms, and menstrual pain. The mild estrogen-like action is used to regulate menstruation, increase the production of breast milk, and aid in menopausal symptoms.
Fennel tea is most often used to treat symptoms of cold and flu such as cough, congestion, sore throat, fever, and muscle pain. It is known to strengthen and tone the digestive system, making it a beneficial herb in treating dyspepsia, indigestion, flatulence, heartburn, colic, and lower abdominal pain.
The seeds of fennel can be chewed as a mild numbing agent for temporary relief of minor pain caused by mouth sores or burning mouth syndrome. The slightly mucilaginous texture can also bring relief from dry mouth, ease a sore throat, and freshen the breath.
In general, fennel is a gentle and effective medicinal, but as with all things, there are a few people who should not use this herb in medicinal doses without consulting their healthcare professional first. People who are suffering from chronic liver disease, hepatitis, epilepsy, estrogen-dependent cancer, and those taking ciprofloxacin should avoid using fennel altogether.
As a customary precaution, women who are pregnant or lactating should consult their herbalist or healthcare professional before using fennel medicinally. In addition, anyone known to have allergic reactions to carrots, celery, or other plants in the Parsley Family should avoid contact with fennel.
The pure essential oil of fennel is primarily used for external applications only after being diluted and should never be used internally without the supervision of a professional. If you use the essential oil of fennel, always keep it locked away from small hands. Less than 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of this very concentrated oil can cause severe contact dermatitis, vomiting, seizure, hallucinations, pulmonary edema, and possibly death.
Heating an herbal decoction or infusion of fennel seed and breathing in the steam brings quick relief to those suffering from sinus or chest congestion by moisturizing a dry throat and nasal passages and by acting as a decongestant. Drinking a cup of fennel tea also helps reduce heavy dry mucus in the mouth, which is especially helpful during bouts of flu.
Fennel is a natural conditioner, and when paired with apple cider vinegar it can’t be beat for softening the hair and adding body and shine. To prepare a hair rinse, simply run a cooled infusion or decoction of fennel seed through the hair into a shallow basin. Repeat the process several times before allowing the rinse to dry in the hair. Apply this treatment two to three times a week for best effect.
Glycerin- or vinegar-based tinctures are especially nice in products for dry, itchy skin or scalp, and adding a glycerin tincture of fennel to any home-made or store-bought product will make it more moisturizing.
Aside from all of its beauty and charm, fennel is one of those herbs that not only attracts butterflies but their larvae as well. Indeed, fennel and all of the other herbs in the Parsley Family like anise, caraway, dill, and parsley are all food hosts for swallowtail butterfly larva. The female lays her eggs on the host plant and the caterpillars emerge with an abundant supply of food at hand. If removed from their specific host plants, these caterpillars will die of starvation.
Keep in mind that a few caterpillars won’t completely destroy a large host plant, but they do feed ravenously on both leaves and flower umbels, which can reduce yield and make plants look thin and straggly.
Because bronze fennel is a major focal point in my herb garden, I like to keep it looking as nice as possible. But I also hate the idea of killing the caterpillars, since I really enjoy having butterflies around all summer. So, instead of killing them, I plant extra fennel in another bed along with other Parsley Family members and several flowering plants that the adult butterflies feed on. This way, when I find caterpillars munching on the fennel in the herb garden, I can simply move them over to the butterfly garden where they can continue their metamorphosis in peace.
In the end, fennel is a wonderful and gentle medicinal, an extraordinarily versatile vegetable and spice, and a tall graceful herb that should be planted and used much more often than it is. Of course, if you love butterflies, plant a few extra fennel plants for the black swallowtail butterfly larvae to feed on and you’ll have plenty of beautiful flying flowers to brighten all of your summer days.
See you next time! Until then, Happy Gardening!
Show Me Oz | Living and loving life in the Ozarks!
Gardening, foraging, herbs, homesteading, slow food, nature, and more!
© Jill Henderson
Learn how to grow and use the world’s oldest, safest, and most medicinal herbs with this easy step-by-step guide! From starting seeds to preparing home remedies, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs is a treasured resource that you will turn to time and time again.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons and Illuminati Agenda 21 can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a featured columnist for Acres USA and a contributing author to Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.
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