The Veggie Chefs & Farmers Think You Should Eat More Often

Women in produce section

Fennel doesn't get enough love if you ask us. Although its uses are vast and its taste is one of a kind, it often gets left behind in the produce aisle, passed over for trendier veggies like cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts. So, consider this our PSA to recruit more fennel fans.

Chefs and farmers can’t get enough of fennel. Pollinators like bees and butterflies are fennel fans too—thanks to its vibrant yellow flowers—but it’s high time the rest of the US sees what we see.

Here’s everything you need to know about the versatile vegetable, including what it is, how to cut and clean fennel, what to do with fennel fronds and seeds, plus the best fennel recipes to try any time of year.

Related: 21 Best Fennel Recipes for Spring

What is Fennel?

The flowering plant known as fennel is a legendary ancient vegetable from the Mediterranean, according to Siri Erickson-Brown, owner of Local Roots Farm in Duvall, WA and member of The Female Farmer Project.

"When Prometheus stole fire from the Olympian gods, he wrapped the glowing coal in a fennel stalk," she explains. "More to the point, fennel is a vegetable that's in the same family as celery, carrots and dill."

Identifiable by its hardy white bulb, green stalks and long feathery fronds, fennel is a perennial herb that thrives in gardens and fields. It's also packed full of fiber, along with vitamins C and A.

Gorgeous green fennel thriving in the field<p>Courtesy of Audra Mulkern</p>
Gorgeous green fennel thriving in the field

Courtesy of Audra Mulkern

When is Fennel in Season?

"In its Mediterranean homeland, it was originally a fall and early winter crop, but now it's cultivated year-round in California and southern Italy," says Erickson-Brown. "On my farm in Washington, we typically harvest fennel from mid-July through first frost in mid to late October."

What Does Fennel Taste Like?

Even though its whitish-green bulb may look similar to an onion, the similarities end there. Siri notes it tastes nothing like an onion and more like licorice.

"Fennel has a mild to strong licorice flavor, but the intensity really depends on the variety and certain growing conditions," she explains. "Well-irrigated fennel tastes like celery and Good & Plenty candy had a love child."

Chef Drew Terp, the Culinary Director of the internationally acclaimed Greek restaurant Estiatorio Milos, also likens fennel's light anise flavor to that of an Italian pizzelle cookie. "The bulb has a sweeter, crisp flavor, while the stalks and fronds are more intense," he says.

The Best Ways to Eat Fennel

Because of its anise flavor, Terp prefers raw fennel shaved thinly in salads, like Milos' famed lobster salad with fennel and radicchio. "Fennel should be treated delicately when used," he tells Parade. "Thin shaved and eaten raw is one of the best ways to enjoy it."

He also says the bulb and stalks work well as a substitute for celery in bone broths and soups and the fronds can be used in salads or as a garnish on rice or with beans.

Estiatorio Milos' famed lobster salad with fennel and radicchio<p>Courtesy of Estiatorio Milos</p>
Estiatorio Milos' famed lobster salad with fennel and radicchio

Courtesy of Estiatorio Milos

Erickson-Brown loves fennel thinly shaved in salads, too, dressed with good olive oil,  crunchy salt, and maybe a little lemon juice. To make it fancier, she adds some citrus (orange or grapefruit are great with fennel) and Castelvetrano olives.

When it comes to cooking fennel, she recommends sautéed fennel and carrots in browned butter. "This smells like waffle cones, although braised or gratin-ed fennel is also fabulous."

As for fennel soups, the options are limitless. Puree the bulb, stalks and fronds for a velvety green option, or chop fennel into one-inch chunks and simmer with other vegetables like carrots, onions and celery in a soup. Pasta and white beans in broth also pair nicely with fennel, as does romesco sauce over charred fennel bulbs.

Want to keep it really simple? Slice the bulb in 1-inch thick wedges, toss with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and roast at 400° until the veggie is browned and super soft.

How to Clean Fennel

Because fennel grows neatly above the ground, and its bulb is tightly wrapped, dirt doesn't make its way inside the way it can with leeks and celery. "A quick rinse is usually sufficient, and it’s best to remove the outer layer if it is withered or dingy," says Erickson-Brown.

Can You Eat the Whole Fennel Bulb?

Yes! Even if you're used to working with fennel and only eating part of the bulb, stop right now. Although it's common to slice off the harder end, Erickson-Brown says you can—and should—eat the whole fennel bulb.

"Sometimes you’ll find there is an inner core, similar to cabbage," she explains, adding that it's still edible and tasty, but can be a little fibrous. Her advice? Slice the inner core thinner, especially if using it raw for salads.

As for the fronds—those verdant sprigs resembling dill on top of the fennel bulb—they're the leaves of the plant and make a great garnish. "They tend to be fairly strong in flavor though, so a little goes a long way," says Erickson-Brown.



What To Do With Fennel Seeds

Once you start to develop a taste for fennel and lean into all of its glorious anise-accented flavor, it's worth exploring other forms of the plant, like its seeds.

"Fennel seeds are delicious and have a strong sweet licorice flavor," says Erickson-Brown. "They are one of the primary flavoring elements for Italian sausage, and sometimes you see them as an after-dinner palate refresher at Indian restaurants." She also loves toasted whole fennel seeds as a nice addition to braised meats and pickling liquid.

Fun fact: Fennel is a natural breath freshener, so if you have a pet who could use help in that department, a small smattering of seeds over their food could help improve bad breath and help with indigestion.

Related: What Are Leeks and How to Cook Them, According to Chefs

How to Store Fennel

Just like carrots, fennel can get soft and lose its luster if you leave it sitting on a counter or in a dry veggie basket for too long. Instead, it should be stored in a cold, humid environment, so a sealed container in the fridge is best. "This vessel does an excellent job of retaining fennel's crisp texture while protecting it from desiccation, similar to cabbage," says Erickson-Brown.

Another reason to keep fennel stocked in your fridge is that a) it's a budget-friendly ingredient that can be found for a few bucks at the grocery store or farmer's market and b) it can store well for up to a month. So you can toss it into salads and soups—even green juice—whenever you get the urge, without worrying about it spoiling.

If you need to keep it longer than that (why tho?) dishes and soups prepared with fennel can be frozen, but Siri doesn’t recommend freezing raw fennel because that can affect its texture.

Fennel Recipes We Love

Now that you're well-versed in this multilayered veggie, grab some bulbs and get busy with these fantastic fennel recipes.

There are roasted meats and grilled fish dishes with simply sauteed fennel, flavor-packed dips and chili with fennel seeds for a sweet, earthy taste and raw fennel salads with citrus that are begging to be made this spring and summer.

Up next: 28 Sensational Spring Dinner Ideas Featuring the Best-of-the-Season Produce