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Like Marmite, fennel is something that you either love or hate - its strong aniseed flavour leaves no room for the middle ground. From the same family as the herb and seed of the same name, it's also known as Florence fennel, finocchio, or sweet fennel, is very popular in Italian cookery, and has a bulb-like shape that looks a little like a heavy-bottomed celery.
When eaten raw, the texture is crisp and the flavour is quite assertive and anisseedy. Cooked, it's softer and more mellow.
Choose the best
If possible, go for the smaller, young bulbs, as they're more tender. They should look white, with no blemishes, and feel heavy for their size. The feathery green tops should be fresh and bright, with no yellowing.
Wash, then trim off the green tops (they can be used as a garnish). Slice off the shoots and root and peel off the tougher outer layer (if the bulb is particularly young and tender you can leave this layer on). To cook it whole, cut out the tough central core from the bottom, leaving a cone-shaped cavity, or slice if you prefer. Alternatively, chop into quarters and remove the core from each one (but not too much, or the quarters will fall apart).
Fresh cut fennel should be wrapped in damp kitchen paper, placed in a perforated bag and stored in the fridge. It will last for up to three days.
Cut into very thin slices for salads (a mandolin is good for this). Boil or steam (up to 20 minutes for a whole head, or up to 12 minutes for wedges). Roast (40-50 minutes).
Fresh fennel bulb gives sweet anise-like flavour. Much of this comes from high concentration of aromatic essential oils like anethole, estragole, and fenchone (fenchyl acetate) in the fennel.
There are three main types of this aromatic plant. Bitter and sweet fennel are both used as herbs. They have pale green, celery-like stems, bright green, feathery foliage and greenish-brown seeds, all of which have a strong aniseed flavour that particularly complements fish. Florence fennel, also called finocchio or Italian fennel, is eaten as a vegetable and has a broad, bulbous base with a mild aniseed flavour.
Look for small, blemish-free bulbs that are pale green, firm and tightly packed, which indicates crispness and freshness.
Both the base and stems of Florence variety can be cooked by braising or roasting, which make it sweet and tender. Cut off the root end and the leaves and peel the outer layer of skin away, then cut either downwards or across the bulb, then boil in salted water for about 15 minutes, or until tender. For those who like raw fennel, try mixing thin slices into a green salad or shredding it with citrus fruit. It is excellent for making soup or it can be poached steamed or briefly boiled.