Florence Fennel: The Essential Italian Herb

Florence Fennel: The Essential Italian Herb

Florence Fennel (F. vulgare azoricum), also known as finocchio, is an annual which is known mainly for the stem that swells to a "bulb" as it grows. It is similar to celery and can be used raw or cooked. It is very popular in Italian cooking, but foreign to many cooks. Fennel bulbs are readily available in the produce section of larger grocery stores and are worthy of trying!

Florence Fennel is also easy to grow, and a lovely addition to the herb or vegetable garden with it's wispy foliage. If you purchase seeds or plants at a garden center be sure to ask for Florence Fennel-versus the Common Fennel. One source I ran across called this variety F. vulgare dulce, but it appears that is not correct; you will be looking for F. vulgare azoricum.

Plant the fennel seeds directly into rich soil, and keep the bed moist for two weeks until the first leaves appear. At this point be careful not to over water, but treat as you would a garden vegetable. Fennel can be planted right up till August, so it's not too late to get started! The bulb does take months to grow to it's full size, but you can use it at any point. When the bulbs are about the size of an egg, pile the soil up around it so it will continue to grow away from the light. At this point the bulb should be ready to harvest in 2 to 3 weeks. You may cut off the seed heads when they form and give the bulb a few more days to grow, then harvest. In mild climates you can grow and harvest fennel all year long using this method!

To store your fennel bulbs wrap them in plastic and store in a cool place. You can also use the young leaves of Florence Fennel in salads and other cold dishes. The bulbs are often eaten similar to celery when thinly sliced and added to salads and soups. Try mincing the bulb and adding to a salad of grapefruit and avocado for a different dish. Italians often slice the bulb thinly and sprinkle with olive oil as an appetizer. If you haven't tried fennel, the following recipes will get you started with this unusual, but delicious herb.

Florence Fennel Recipes

Oven Potatoes with Fennel

Ingredients: 20 ounces Yukon Gold potatoes, cut in 1/2" cubes
1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed and cut in 1" slices
1 medium sweet onion, diced
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, minced finely
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper -- to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. In large bowl, combine potatoes, fennel, onion, parsley, oil, salt and pepper; toss gently until well coated. Arrange mixture in a single layer on a prepared baking sheet. Bake, turning occasionally, until potatoes are crisp on all sides, 30-35 minutes. Serve immediately.

Linguine with Vegetables

Ingredients:
1 lb. linguine, uncooked
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/8 cup chopped mint
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
5 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup fresh peas
2 cloves garlic
1 cup sliced sweet onion
1 cup. diced yellow squash
1 cup diced zucchini
1 (12 oz.) can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup diced fennel bulb

To make pesto: In a blender or food processor, purée the cilantro, mint, Parmesan cheese, and 3 Tbsp. of oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

For vegetables: Blanch the peas in boiling water for three minutes; drain; rinse in cold water. Heat a large pot over high heat. Add the remaining 3 Tbsp. of oil, garlic, and onions, and mix well. Add the peas and other vegetables, except the tomatoes, and continue cooking over very high heat until the vegetables are tender. Add the tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Remove the pot from the heat.

For pasta: Cook the pasta according to package directions; drain. Toss the pasta with vegetables over low heat, mixing in half of the herb pesto mixture. Serve with a spoonful of pesto, and garnish with Parmesan cheese and springs of cilantro. Makes eight servings.

Fennel and Pepper Coleslaw

Ingredients:
1 medium fennel bulb, very thinly sliced
2 medium red and/or yellow bell peppers, thinly sliced
4 scallions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons mayonnaise, regular or light
1 tablespoon grated orange rind
1 tablespoon cider vinegar

Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl; toss well. Let stand at least 10 minutes to blend the flavors.

About the Author Brenda Hyde is a freelance writer, wife and mom to three living in the Midwest. She is also editor of http://oldfashionedliving.com, where you will find articles on gardening, herbs, crafts and other old fashioned topics.

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