Fennel, a native of the Mediterranean, wended its way north, east, and west, and established itself in the landscapes and gardens of temperate climates around the world. So hardy is it, it is sometimes considered an invasive weed when it proliferates into expansive stands to the detriment of other plants that might have wanted to share the space. But for me, it is a most splendiferous perennial that in all its parts serves both the garden and the house.
In the garden, its willowy fronds attract anise swallowtail butterflies to deposit their eggs, which, when hatched, use the fronds for their larval food, without harming the plant! Then, almost in front of your very eyes, the larvae slowly fatten into charming green, black-striped caterpillars with yellow highlights and wrap themselves into chrysalises. There they remain until they metamorphose over the next several days into one of the most beautiful of the swallowtail butterflies.
For the household, fennel’s stately stems sporting brilliant yellow flower heads invite cutting for decorative arrangements. In the kitchen, fennel’s glory shines forth with myriad delights for the cook. The bulbs can be used Italian-style, thinly sliced and slightly wilted in a douse of lemon juice and a sprinkle of sea salt, or British-style, cut lengthwise, braised tender, and dressed with a cream sauce. The fronds, left long and feathery, make a fragrant bed for any platter of food, sweet or savory, or chopped, they are an intriguing change from parsley as a garnish. The flowers, semi-dry and just before going to seed give forth a raiment of yellow pollen which is highly prized for Italian and, more recently, American dishes. Once gone to seed, fennel becomes a spice used in many cuisines from Sweden to Italy to India. And, its dried stalks supply an aromatic fire for grilling the classic French dish, poisson au fenouil, or lamb or chicken, for that matter.
*Umbel describes the flower clusters of the fennel plant, and many of their cousins, in which the individual flowers radiate from slender stalks that come together and form a sort of umbrella shape at the top of a larger stalk. The description extends to an entire family of plants, both edible and not edible, called umbilifers. The edible ones are some of our most used culinary plants, including cilantro, carrots, cumin, parsley, and parsnips, among many dozens of others.
With such culinary capabilities, it’s no wonder fennel can pull out the charms of even a homey, everyday vegetable such as broccoli. Here’s a good way to do that (adapted from Bold: A Cookbook of Big Flavors, by Susanna Hoffman and Victoria Wise, Workman, 2013).
4 cups broccoli florets
1 cup heavy cream
1/ 3 cup coarsely chopped fennel bulb
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cracked green peppercorns
1/ 2 teaspoon kosher or fine sea salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Fennel pollen, for garnish (optional)
1. Place the broccoli florets and water almost to cover in a large saute pan over high heat. Cover the pan, bring to a boil, and drain immediately. Return the florets to the pan.
2. Add the cream, fennel, garlic, and salt and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook briskly, stirring once or twice, until the cream is bubbling up and almost gone, about 5 minutes. Stir in the peppercorns and lemon juice. Sprinkle with the fennel pollen, if using, and serve.