SEASON: Peak season is fall and winter. However, home gardeners can also slip in a quick planting in spring for an early summer harvest.
CHOOSING: Look for compact bulbs that are relatively heavy and firm. Avoid those that are splitting or browning, or have other injuries.
STORING: Remove the foliage by snipping an inch or two above the bulb. Place fennel in a produce bag to prevent moisture loss, and store it in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator for three or four days.
GROWING: Often mistaken for celery or dill, fennel is a true original. All parts of the plant (the bulb, stalk, and feathery fronds) are edible. Fennel enjoys cool weather—not hot, but not freezing. Although it’s easy to germinate from seeds sown directly into the garden after the soil has warmed, transplants are helpful to get a head start in spring or in raising a fall crop that must be started in the heat of summer. It takes about three months for fennel to produce the bulb, so do the math to determine when you need to start and if you have enough time before the weather turns hot or starts freezing.
Improved varieties have been introduced in recent years. Try Zefa Fino or Trieste. They resist the urge to flower, channeling their energy into the bulb instead.
Plant fennel seeds or transplants in a sunny, well-drained bed that has been amended with compost. Thin seedlings to stand about 12 inches apart. Keep the bed moist, and be sure to feed your fennel every two to three weeks with a liquid fertilizer.
After the bulb grows to about 2 inches in length, cover it with soil or mulch, which will make it tender. Snip off any flower stalks that may form to prevent the bulb from splitting. When it’s time to harvest, use clippers to snip under the bulb and cut the taproot.[pagebreak]
Don't let an aversion to black jelly beans keep you away from fennel. Native to the Mediterranean region, this licorice-flavored member of the parsley family is one of Italy's most popular vegetables.
Work with it, and you will find that the aromatic plant lends itself well to a wider variety of foods than you might have first suspected. Another benefit: one cup contains almost 20 percent of your recommended daily value of vitamin C. Most fennel available in American markets is grown in California. The type you'll find-Florence, or bulb, fennel (sometimes labeled "fresh anise")-has a bulbous base, stalks like celery, and feathery leaves that resemble Queen Anne's lace. Like celery, the entire plant is edible. The crisp and slightly sweet bulb is especially delicious served raw in salads. Whether braised, sautéed, roasted, or grilled, the bulb mellows and softens with cooking.
Look for small, heavy, white bulbs that are firm and free of cracks, browning, or moist areas. The stalks should be crisp, with feathery, bright-green fronds. Wrapped in plastic, fennel keeps for just a few days in the refrigerator; the flavor fades as it dries out.
The Whole Fennel
• Fennel seeds don't come from bulb fennel but from common, or wild, fennel. The seeds are slightly nutty, with the expected licorice flavor, and are widely used in sausages, stews, soups, and curries.
• Fennel stalks can take the place of celery in soups and stews, and can be used as a "bed" for roasted chicken and meats.
• Use fronds as a garnish, or chop them and use as you would other herbs, like dill or parsley. Chopped fennel works especially well in Italian tomato sauces, but add it late in the cooking process so the flavor isn't diluted.
• Trim the stalks about an inch above the bulb.
• If you want pieces to stay together for grilling, keep the root end intact. Otherwise, trim about a half inch off the root end before cooking.
• To slice fennel, stand the bulb on the root end and cut vertically. –Kris Wetherbee