According to that all-knowing source Wikipedia, Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a member of the family Apiaceae. It is a hardy, perennial herb with yellow flowers and feathery leaves. Indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean, it has also become widely naturalized in many parts of the world. It is a highly aromatic and flavourful herb with culinary and medicinal uses”. Wow, Wiki….you do know a lot of important things! And breaking news: fennel and anise? Not the same thing! Who knew? Wiki knew. And for the Greek mythology buffs among us it is said that “Prometheus used the stalk of a fennel plant to steal fire from the Gods”. Wait, is my Wiki showing?
Ok, it’s an herb, not a veggie. It has a slightly milder flavour than anise and it can be eaten raw or cooked. Oh, and it’s weird and kind of hairy looking and can intimidate the hell out of a newbie in the produce aisle wondering not only how to cook it but how to even begin to cut into it. But fear not and take the leap because, as is so often the case, ancient cultures knew that fennel is not just food, its medicine too. One caveat, if you don’t like a slight licorice flavour, cooking is probably the way to go as it mellows it out. And think real deal black licorice, not Twizzlers…sadly.
So why embrace fennel and attempt to add yet another item to the list of foods you encourage/bribe/fool your kids into trying? At the most basic nutritional level, it stacks up nicely. One cup of fennel contains 17% of your daily vitamin C needs, making it a known immune booster. It also contains almost 11% of your fibre needs and is thought to have protective benefits for the colon as fibre removes potential carcinogens from the body. Fennel also packs a healthy dose of potassium and that entire cup only contains 1% of your daily calories. Fennel is loaded with a unique combination of phytonutrients and antioxidants, the most notable being anethole. “In animal studies, the anethole in fennel has repeatedly been shown to reduce inflammation and to help prevent the occurrence of cancer”. Probably its most oft-touted benefits are to the digestive tract. According to Dr. Weil, fennel is a “carminative” herb that aids in the “expulsion of gas from the digestive tract” and people with digestive issues such as irritable bowel are advised to chew on a handful of the seeds or drink fennel tea after a meal to ease any digestive discomfort. The tea is also soothing and may ease cold and flu symptoms. And two nifty little bonuses: fennel tea can help with weight loss as it naturally suppresses appetite and boosts metabolism. If that weren’t enough, soaking a cotton ball in fennel tea and placing it over the eyes for 10 minutes can relieve itchy, irritated eyes.
And here’s the good news for those of you standing in the produce aisle wondering just exactly which part you eat….all of it! Just slice the bottom off the bulb and cut it in half to rinse it and the stalks and mangia, mangia!
Check out this recipe for Fennel and Leek Gratin from the New York Times. Looks delish and let’s face it, kids will eat almost anything doused in cheese. And by kids, I mean me.