I use fennel seeds so often in my cooking, they have earned a place in the kitchen shrine: the spice rack. Smack bang between the stove-top and the sink, the shelves have only enough space for the indispensable and the need-it-right-now. More cleansing than liquorice, less exotic than star anise – and yet reminiscent of both, the mellow aniseed-perfumed seeds are in good company amongst the virtues of fat garlic bulbs, stubs of ginger, and Indian masala. Their jar is huddled up against those of sea-salt and cloves, along with the stout grinders for black peppercorns and pink himalayan rock.
Last spring, I planted Wild Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, in the Kitchen Garden. I had in mind a recipe which I’d saved from a magazine the summer before. It was a recipe from Sardegna, and involved fresh sardines and wild fennel fronds, but also bucatini pasta and breadcrumbs. I never got around to Paleofying that dish, but how glad I am that I planted the Wild Fennel.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the plant, it grows to over two meters tall, claiming architectural space in the garden. From the thick bulb at the base, the hollow branches shoot upwards like arms held high in celebration. The leaf fronds are fine and feathery. Pressing them into your hand releases the unmistakable aroma that summons to the imagination Mediteranean coasts, or Venetian merchant trade ships, or the bohemian fervour of Absinthe. By midsummer, haloes of tiny yellow flower clusters are opening to the sun. The flowers start stretching on their stems, like long fingers unfurling from a tight fist, and on the end of each slim finger a tiny replica, a minature hand, made of seeds.
At the beginning of last month, I thought to harvest. And just as well, because shortly after a hailstorm blew the garden to bits. Other climates and environments are on the alert for hurricane or bushfire or earthquake. Here, with the Alps above, we get flooding and hail. Really big hail that punctures car panels and breaks glass. We’d spent Sunday doing the Autumn planting and tidying, and the hail storm hit on Monday. But the fennel seeds were safe inside.
When I was cutting the heads from the plant, before cutting the big stems almost to the ground, the General, who was meters away in the yard, could smell the sensation. When I bought them inside and placed them in a bowl to dry, the rich and mellow perfume filled the apartment for two days, stronger than incense.
The seed heads are so pretty. Starbursts, or flowers from the sea. Now, as I crush-and-roll the clusters between my fingers and thumb, releasing the seeds from the stalk, the scent fills and cleans and clears my nose and my head. The shop-bought fennel seeds, which are compact and green, have not nearly the same intensity.
In the colder months I place a teaspoon of fennel in a tea-strainer and brew it in a mug. It hits the spot. Fennel seeds added to a burger mix release bursts of flavour in unexpected moments. Boiled in the pot of bone or chicken broth, they give depth of flavour. Mixed into a stew or any long-simmered something, tossed into a wet sautè, kneaded into bread dough, or sprinkled onto savory crackers. Ground with cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. Scattered over oil-rubbed pumpkin before roasting. Fried with liver, and mushrooms. Simmered in the poaching water for fish. Sprinkled into cabbage that’s slow cooked with apple and onion.They enliven, give character, yet are light.
They say fennel seeds are good for the digestion, and I believe them.
Read about Fennel Seeds and Digestion here: Using Fennel Seeds for Gas, Cramps and Bloating.
You might also like Slow Simmered Cabbage with Apples and Spice.
How do you use Fennel Seeds? As a flavour enhancer, or as a digestive aid, or both? Do let me know in the comments.
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