Fennel seeds are the dried “fruit” of the fennel plant. The plant has feathery leaves, which are used as an herb and it also produces yellow flowers. When the flowers die, seeds form in clumps and are collected once they have ripened and hardened.
The seeds are oval in shape and green or greenish brown in color. They are often mistaken for anise. However, fennel seeds are slightly larger and less pungent. The seeds and leaves of the fennel plant both have a licorice flavor, although the flavor of fennel is milder and somewhat sweeter than anise.
Fennel seeds are actually a spice, although the leaves, stalks and roots of the plant are known as a herb. The bulb-like vegetable called fennel or finocchio in Italian is related to the herb fennel and is similar in taste, however, they are not the same plant. The fennel plant is native to the southern European and Mediterranean regions, although, it is now cultivated and produced in other parts of the world such as India, China and Egypt.
Fennel has been around for thousands of years and food historians say that the name has Greek origins. In 490 BC the Ancient Greeks fought with the Persians in the city of Marathon. According to the story, the battleground was actually a field of fennel and the word for fennel is derived from the Greek word for “marathon”. The Romans introduced the spice to the UK and other European countries and over time it was also transported East to Asia and China. The Puritans took the spice to the US, where they called fennel seeds “meeting seeds”, due to the fact that during long church sermons or Puritan meetings, they chewed on the seeds to fend off hunger and tiredness. Today fennel and fennel seeds are popular in Northern and Southern European cuisines, as well as in Chinese and Indian cooking, where they are often included in spice blends.
Medicinally, fennel seeds have traditionally been used to settle the stomach and digestive system. This is due to components in the seeds that are known to prevent muscle spasms and cramps. In the Indian culture, fennel seeds are often chewed after a meal in order to prevent gas or indigestion. The seeds can also be made into an after dinner digestive drink to relieve the same symptoms.
Fennel seeds can be bought from your local supermarket or spice shop. The freshest and best quality seeds will be a bright green color and these are the best seeds for cooking. As the seeds age, their color changes to a darker green and then a brownish green to grey. You can buy the seeds whole or in ground form. The whole seeds will keep longer and you can easily grind them yourself at home with a pestle and mortar or a spice mill. Store the seeds in a dark cupboard away from the sunlight in an airtight glass container. Try to use the seeds within 6 months.
The seeds can be used without any special preparation, if you are using them in a sweet dish or to flavor bread. However, if the seeds are being used for a savory recipe, they may be toasted or heated in a dry frying pan for two or three minutes before grinding or crushing, as this will accentuate their flavor and aroma. Toasting the seeds in this way actually changes the flavor of the seeds slightly, giving them a stronger and spicier flavor rather than a sweeter and milder one.
Fennel seeds have different uses in different parts of the world. In Scandinavia and central Europe, the seeds are used in baking, particularly in rye breads and sweet pastries. Fennel is extremely popular in Italy where they are added to sausage mixtures. In India fennel seeds are one of the ingredients in the common spice blend, panch phoran, which also contains mustard, fenugreek seeds and cumin that is used to flavor curry. Fennel is very versatile but is especially flavorful in rubs for meat, poultry, fish and seafood.
Below are a number of ideas on how you can use fennel seeds in your cooking:
- Use fennel seeds to make fish soup and fish stock.
- Add fennel seeds to salads, particularly cucumber salad.
- Add to soft cheese and spread on bread.
- Use the seeds when making bread or biscuits.
- Use in sausage mixtures.
- Use in any pork dishes, stews or casseroles.
- Sprinkle ground fennel seeds over fish or meat.
- Use in Italian-style pasta sauces.
- Use in pickling solutions.
- Use in a marinade for meat, fish or vegetables.
- Add to poaching or steaming liquid for fish and shellfish.
- Add to couscous, lentil, bean or bulgur wheat dishes.
- Add to homemade coleslaw or potato salad.
- Use in homemade salad dressings.
Homemade Italian Fennel Pork Sausage
Fennel seed is one of the main ingredients in Italian sausage and this recipe includes Asiago cheese for added flavor. Try making your own at home. You can use a food processor to chop up the pork and most electric mixers come with a sausage stuffer attachment. This sausage is just as good in patties as in casings.
- 2 large boneless pork shoulder roasts, cut into small chunks (remove large pieces of fat) weighing 6 pounds after trimming
- 1-1/2 tablespoons salt
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 5 tablespoons minced Italian parsley
- 1/2 cup grated Asiago cheese
- 4 tablespoons crushed fennel seeds
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
Toast fennel seeds in a pan in a preheated 325-degree F. oven for 10 minutes. Cool before using in the recipe.
In a large bowl, combine pork, salt, pepper red pepper, parsley, Asiago cheese, fennel seeds and garlic. Thoroughly blend with your hands. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight for flavors to blend.
Put seasoned pork chunks through the medium plate of a food chopper. Place in a large bowl and mix thoroughly to evenly distribute seasonings.
All sausages can be prepared as patties (the easiest) or run through a sausage-stuffer into hog casings by following the instructions of the appliance. Sausages freeze well.
Patties can be sauteed in a little olive oil and served with tomato sauce.
Yield: about 6 pounds.
Braided Fennel Seed Twists
Taralli are the famous hard country biscuits from Molise and Campania. They look like bagels and can be made large or small. They appear at every meal and are addictive. They are flavored with fennel seeds, black pepper and peperoncino (crushed red pepper). Try using all these flavorings in the dough or just one, depending on your taste. When taralli are braided they are called treccine (little braids).
- 1 cup warm water (110-115F)
- 2 teaspoons active dried yeast
- 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
- 3 cups unbleached All-Purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fennel seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse black pepper
Pour the water into a food processor fitted with a dough hook. Add the yeast and pulse to dissolve it. Pour the olive oil into the feed tube.
In a large measuring cup mix the flour with the salt and pour through the feed tube with the motor running. Stop the machine.
Grind the fennel seeds in a spice grinder until coarse. Add them through the feed tube along with the black pepper. Pulse the machine to blend the ingredients. The dough should be soft,
but not sticky.
When the dough forms a ball, stop the machine and transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise in a warm spot until doubled, about 45 minutes.
Punch down the dough and transfer it to a work surface. Only use flour on the surface if the dough is sticky, but it should be fine without it.
Roll the dough out into a 36-inch log. Cut 36 1-inch pieces.
Roll two pieces into an 8 inch rope, then twist the pieces together to form a braid. Pinch the ends together to form a circle.
Allow the biscuits to rise on lightly greased baking sheets for about 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Bake the biscuits about 25-30 minutes or until nicely browned. Turn off the oven and allow the them to really dry out in the oven. They should be the consistency of a hard cracker. Cool.
Serve at room temperature with cheese and olives and a glass of wine.
To freeze, wrap the biscuits individually in plastic wrap and then in a large zip lock bag. They will keep for about 3 months
Chicken and Escarole Soup with Fennel
6 main-course servings
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 1/2 pounds skinless boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 2 cups chopped onions
- 4 celery stalks, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 14-to 15-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
- 8 cups low-salt chicken broth
- 1 head of escarole, cut into wide strips
- Grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Heat oil in large pot over medium-high heat. Add chicken; sprinkle with salt, pepper and oregano. Mix in onions, celery, garlic and fennel seeds. Sauté until vegetables begin to soften, about 4 minutes. Stir in tomatoes. Add broth; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium; simmer until vegetables and chicken are tender, about 15 minutes. Add escarole; simmer until wilted, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Ladle into bowls. Serve, passing cheese separately.
Fennel Crusted Tuna Steaks
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoons fennel seeds
- 1 tablespoon crushed black pepper
- 2 tuna steaks (5 to 6 ounces, 2 to 3 inches thick)
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Place a medium-sized skillet on medium-high heat and add oil to the pan.
Using a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle, crush fennel seeds into a powder. Place in a shallow bowl, add crushed pepper and mix until well incorporated.
Pat tuna steaks dry with paper towel. Season steaks liberally on both sides with salt.
Press fennel-pepper mix onto tuna steaks on both sides.
Carefully place tuna steak into the heated pan.
Cook on each side for 3-4 minutes until pink in the middle or until done to your liking.
Grilled Spareribs with Fennel Seeds
- 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon whole fennel seeds
- 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
- 2 teaspoons pepper
- 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
- 2 teaspoons ground fennel seeds
- 2 racks (2 1/2 lbs. each) pork spare ribs trimmed St. Louis-style, membrane removed, cut into 8- portions
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
Combine all ingredients except the ribs and olive oil in a bowl. Rub ribs all over with the oil and spread with seasoning mixture, putting most on the meaty side of the ribs. Wrap tightly in foil and refrigerate for at least 4 and up to 24 hours; let stand at room temperature for one hour before cooking hour.
Meanwhile, scrunch 5 (1 1/2 ft.) sheets of foil each into a log about 9 in. long; set aside.
Prepare a grill for low (250° to 300°) indirect heat and put a 9-by 13-in. drip pan in place ( check note below).
Set ribs with bone tips upright over the drip pan area, arranging foil logs between ribs to hold them up. Grill, covered, until meat is very tender when pierced and shrinks back 1/2 inch from the tips of the bones, 1 3/4 to 2 1/4 hours.
Transfer ribs to a rimmed baking sheet and cover with foil. Let rest about 10 minutes before serving.
Note: If using gas, put a drip pan in place under one area of the cooking grate (the indirect-heat area), then light only the burner or burners on the rest of the grill (the direct-heat area).
If using charcoal, ignite 50 briquets in a chimney, then bank coals on opposite sides of the grill, leaving a cleared area in the middle. Set a drip pan in the cleared area. Let coals burn down to the temperature specified in the recipe. To maintain the temperature during cooking, add 5 briquets to each mound of coals about every 30 minutes, starting when ribs go on the grill; if the fire gets too hot, partially close vents under grill and on the lid.
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