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Common Fennel: It’s All About the Seeds

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Common Fennel: It’s All About the Seeds

September 19, 2022

With fennel, it’s not all about the bulb. Unlike short-lived, fat-bottomed (and high maintenance, I would add) Florence fennel, common fennel is a perennial that brings airy stature, pollinator-magnet flowers, and intensely-flavored fresh seed to the garden and the table. It is a high-performance, edible ornamental. Planted in flower borders, its fine leaves add grace and height, and in small gardens it works especially hard, requiring minimal real-estate but offering plenty of vertical drama as well as flowers for months. Cutting fennel seed heads back prevents the plant’s spread in areas where it is invasive (hi, California!). And fresh fennel seeds? They’re an aromatic treat.

Here’s how to put them to use.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Fennel sharing a pot with balloon plant and swamp milkweed.

But first, for those who like to know: Foeniculum vulgare is our common fennel, versus the bulb-producing (yes, we know it’s not a real bulb) variety, F. var. azoricum. It can be grown easily from seed, or, for the impatient, bought from nurseries as a young plant in spring. Plant fennel in full sun. Left to overwinter, it will come back—bigger and bolder—for years. I like bronze fennel, for its dark-leafed, early-season appeal.

Above: In-ground fennel flanked by two basils in late summer.
Above: Cut fennel flowers add simple prettiness to a supper table.

For me, every late summer means a kitchen obsession that revolves around an evolving riff on a powerfully good garlic and fennel seed paste. It is fueled by a bronze fennel plant that keeps producing fresh seed heads even while it is surrounded by a halo of flying insects that are besotted with the polleniferous flowers.

Above: This season’s version of fennel seed paste includes preserved Meyer lemon.

Preserved lemon’s mellow oils and the sting of farmer’s market garlic become something magical with the licorice freshness of green fennel seeds.

Once the paste is crushed in a pestle and mortar (you could use a food processor), I toss it into warm, cooked lentils with chopped salt-cured anchovies for a rustic but intensely satisfying stand-alone meal. It transforms a flock of grilled, pasture-raised chicken wings, which we devour, putting hyenas to shame. It is also a building block for big, stuffed mushrooms, mixed with either Panko breadcrumbs or very finely chopped pecans or walnuts.

Above: Milk bread with chicken of the woods, summer savory, and fennel paste stuffing.

Because fresh fennel works so well with mushrooms I stuff it into milk-dough loaves and buns, which make ideal picnic fare. You can also add the aromatic mixture to slow-cooked pork for potted rillettes (which can be frozen in batches), and to bouillabaisse-y fish soups.

Above: Baguette stuffed with fennel seed paste, fennel fronds, and butter.

If you are bold, spread the paste with butter into a sliced baguette, before wrapping and baking for 30 minutes at 350’F. My Frenchman (the man I married) is a huge fan—maybe because the flavors and textures scream South-of-France, where he grew up.

Above: Summer savory and green fennel seeds are ready to harvest at the same time.
Above: My Brooklyn version of Croatian travarica.

I learned recently about travarica, a Croatian liqueur served as a digestif or tonic, made with a variety of local herbs but led by fennel and wormwood. It should be made with a clear grape or other fruit spirit, but I am happy with the vodka version that I infused with my own fennel seeds and foraged mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). Sipped slowly it is warm with anise, slightly bitter, and surprisingly calming.

Above: Unripe, green seeds about to become paste.

Fennel Seed and Garlic Paste

If possible, use green fennel seeds, before they have dried—their flavor is much brighter. Variations on the paste include the addition of other herbs (thyme, rosemary, and summer savory are good), and chili flakes. For a delicious spread, add a cupful of finely chopped pecans or walnuts, and whizz in a food processor until smooth.

  • 3 tablespoons green fennel seeds
  • 1/2 cup garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
  • 2 – 3 segments (skin only) of preserved lemon

Combine the fennel and garlic in a mortar and crush together until you have a chunky paste. Cut the preserved lemon skin finely and add the pieces to the paste. Work together again in the mortar until the ingredients are well blended. The flavor should be salty enough with the lemon, but add more to taste, if necessary. Use at once or pack into a clean jar and keep in the refrigerator.

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