Fennel is crunchy and slightly sweet, adding a refreshing contribution to the ever popular Mediterranean cuisine. It is indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean, but has become widely naturalised in many parts of the world, especially on dry soils near the sea-coast and on riverbanks. Most often associated with Italian cooking, fennel is composed of a white or pale green bulb from which closely superimposed stalks are arranged. The stalks are topped with feathery green leaves near which flowers grow and produce fennel seeds. The bulb, stalk, leaves and seeds are all edible. Fennel belongs to the Umbellifereae family and is therefore closely related to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander. It is a highly aromatic and flavorful herb with culinary and medicinal uses, and, along with the similar-tasting anise, is one of the primary ingredients of absinthe.
Like many of its fellow spices, fennel contains its own unique combination of phytonutrients—including the flavonoids rutin, quercitin, and various kaempferol glycosides—that give it strong antioxidant activity. The most fascinating phytonutrient compound in fennel, however, may be anethole—the primary component of its volatile oil. In animal studies, the anethole in fennel has repeatedly been shown to reduce inflammation and to help prevent the occurrence of cancer.
In addition to its unusual phytonutrients, fennel bulb is an excellent source of vitamin C. Vitamin C is the body's primary water-soluble antioxidant, able to neutralize free radicals in all aqueous environments of the body. If left unchecked, these free radicals cause cellular damage that results in the pain and joint deterioration that occurs in conditions like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
As a very good source of fiber, fennel bulb may help to reduce elevated cholesterol levels. And since fiber also removes potentially carcinogenic toxins from the colon, fennel bulb may also be useful in preventing colon cancer. In addition to its fiber, fennel is a very good source of folate, a B vitamin that is necessary for the conversion of a dangerous molecule called homocysteine into other, benign molecules. At high levels, homocysteine, which can directly damage blood vessel walls, is considered a significant risk factor for heart attack or stroke. Fennel is also a very good source of potassium, a mineral that helps lower high blood pressure, another risk factor for stroke and heart attack.
Fennel is a versatile vegetable that plays an important role in the food culture of many European nations, especially in France and Italy. Its esteemed reputation dates back to the earliest times and is reflected in its mythological traditions. In Greek mythology, Prometheus used the stalk of a fennel plant to steal fire from the gods. Also, it was from the giant fennel, Ferula communis, that the Bacchanalian wands of the god Dionysus and his followers were said to have come. The ancient Greeks knew fennel by the name "marathron"; it grew in the field in which one of the great ancient battles was fought and which was subsequently named the Battle of Marathon after this revered plant. Fennel was also awarded to Pheidippides, the runner who delivered the news of the Persian invasion to Sparta. Fennel was revered by the Greeks and the Romans for its medicinal and culinary properties.
Fennel has been grown throughout Europe, especially areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, and the Near East since ancient times. Today, the United States, France, India and Russia are among the leading cultivators of fennel. Fennel has become naturalised along roadsides, in pastures, and in other open sites in many regions, including northern Europe, the United States, southern Canada and in much of Asia and Australia.
Roasted Fennel Recipe
Martha Stewart Guide to 25 Fennel Recipes
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