Throughout history fennel has been used to freshen the breath, treat stomach ailments, and help keep the body in balance. Thomas Jefferson said he preferred fennel to all other vegetables.
Raw fennel has a flavor similar to the herb anise and black licorice. It can stand alone, but when cooked with other foods, it lends a je ne sais quoi to the overall flavor of the dish, enhancing the other foods in the mix.
The “bulb” of the plant is actually a tightly packed bundle of leaves. This part of the plant can be served raw in salads or braised, sautéed, roasted, or grilled. When cooked the leaves, like onions, become supple. As it cooks, the crispness of the flavor mellows, though its sweetness remains.
The stalks of the plant are fibrous, with a texture similar to celery, and as such, can serve as a celery substitution in a stew or stir-fry. Their flavor is a bit more distinct and intense than the bulb of the plant, but can still be eaten raw. Many people like using the stalks for making a good vegetable stock.
The leaves, or fronds, of the plant are a pretty, feathery, emerald green and easily lend themselves to garnish a plate. They can also be chopped and used as a fresh herb to flavor soups or sauces. Fennel leaves are particularly nice in a tomato based pasta sauce. Add the chopped leaves late in cooking to keep their flavor from weakening too much.
Keep your fennel whole and unwashed in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. It should last about a week in the fridge. You can put it in a plastic bag to extend storage time.