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Fennel Seed Adds Mediterranean Warmth

Fine Cooking Issue 48
Photo: Scott Phillips
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Fennel seed is one of my favor­ite spices. Its mild licorice aroma lends a sunny warmth to foods that, alone or in concert with other spices, I find irresistible.  

There are three different kinds of fennel plants, but only one of them, common fennel, produces fennel seeds.
Common fennel is a perennial native to Mediterranean Italy, as well as to China and India, but it’s now cultivated worldwide. Unlike its cousins, sweet fennel and Italian fennel, common fennel lacks the characteristic bulb at its base.  

Fennel shouldn’t be confused with its distant relative, anise. Anise seeds are smaller but stronger, with a distinct sweet licorice flavor. Fennel seeds are larger, and their flavor is similar to anise but a bit less sweet, less aromatic, and less pungent. That’s why I think fennel seeds are better suited to savory dishes, whereas anise seeds work best in desserts.  

Fennel seed has an affinity to pork, lamb, beef, poultry, fish (especially fatty fish), apples, cabbage, potatoes, and tomatoes. I use it in all my tomato sauces, meatloaves, meatballs, and meat sauces.

Fennel seed should be a dull greenish-yellow color. If it’s tan or brown, it’s old. Like all spices, fennel seed has a limited shelf life once opened. Its flavors begin to deteriorate after coming in contact with the air, but this doesn’t become noticeable for about six months. To prevent this, transfer fennel seed to small, airtight containers. It can be stored this way in a cool, dry place for six months to one year. Or you can freeze fennel seed, as I usually do. Freezing extends its shelf life to about eighteen months.  

It’s best to toast fennel seed before using it to release its flavorful oils. I put the seeds in my toaster oven until I can smell them, but you can also toss them in a hot, dry skillet. Either way, be careful not to burn them.  

Fennel seed can be used whole, or it can be ground in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. Whole seeds will soften when cooked in a sauce or a stew, but they should be ground when being used as a rub or in dishes with a short cooking time.  

Fennel pollen is the latest darling of the spice world. It’s the pollen of wild fennel plants that grow in California and Italy. Fennel pollen is more aromatic and vibrant than fennel seed, but it’s also more volatile—and it’s equally more expensive. I especially like it with roast chicken or pork. Fennel pollen should be used sparingly, as it’s stronger than ground fennel seed.

Experimenting with fennel seed

• Add toasted fennel seed to the cavity of a chicken before it’s roasted.
• Beat ground toasted fennel seed, lime juice, and snipped chives into salted butter. Chill the butter and melt it over a pork chop as soon as it comes off the grill.
• Sprinkle ground toasted fennel seed into a warm potato salad.
• Make a rub for pork or fish from crushed fennel and cumin seeds, salt, and pepper.
• Tie a tablespoon of toasted fennel seed in cheesecloth and simmer it in minestrone or other vegetable and bean soups.
• Simmer toasted fennel seed in your favorite tomato or meat sauce.
• Make a quick lamb sausage (or a mixture for lamb patties or meatballs) by combining ground lamb with whole fennel seed, brown sugar, dry mustard, salt, and pepper.
• Mix toasted fennel seed into hamburger patties, meatballs, or meatloaf.
• Substitute lightly crushed fennel seed for the caraway seed in Irish soda bread or rye bread.
• Add a little ground fennel seed to an apple pie.

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