Fennel is in season at Washington area farmers markets right now. Tall and ferny with a sectioned white bulb, fennel attracts attention and raises some eyebrows at our local market. Fennel ferns can tower three feet above the bulbs. Many people are unfamiliar with fennel or have never seen the whole vegetable including the long ferny tops.
Fennel is making an appearance on our farm now along with the last of the spring crops, the elusive garlic scapes and the first of the summer vegetables, like zucchini and summer squash. Peak summer crops like tomatoes are still a few weeks out for most Maryland farms.
While I was selling vegetables at our local market last week, the fennel was the conversation starter. Customers wanted to know what it was, whether they can use the abundant anise scented greens and of course how they should prepare it.
Fennel is generally associated with Italian cooking and is a native plant of southern Europe and the Mediterranean, including Israel. I remember picking wild fennel on the trail up to Tel Gezer when I was a volunteer on Kibbutz Gezer years ago. The kibbutz children were familiar with the wild plant, and many liked to chew on the leaves, which have the anise flavor of black licorice.
Fennel also thrives in gardens most anywhere with summer heat and has found its way into Israeli cooking in salads and more. It is a great source of vitamin C, antioxidants and fiber.
The anise flavor can of fennel is mild, but can take a little getting used to. Some people, including my children, love it immediately. They prefer to munch on the crunchy stalks and bulb raw. It is also refreshing to eat fennel raw in a salad to help you cool off in the summer heat. The stalks and section bulb can be used like celery, either raw or cooked.
If you want to mellow out the anise flavor, fennel is great roasted or mixed in with other vegetables in a soup or stir fry. We love fennel bulbs roasted with olive oil, which brings out the sweetness. As far as the extra greens, they can also be eaten raw in salads or used for flavor in other cooking. You can even freeze some for flavoring your winter soups.
It is not too late to add fennel to your garden either. You can plant fennel through early summer in our area, and it should be ready before the first frost. It is a fairly easy plant to grow and matures in about 90 days. As a bonus, it produces a green, umbrella-like flower that is popular with pollinators. If you do not harvest the fennel in time, you can collect and use the seeds as an aromatic herb later in the fall.