By: Lucia Kearney
I Am Obsessed with Fennel
I will admit, the first time I met fennel I was skeptical. The plant was beautiful to be sure with its feathery fronds and elegant bulb, but that faint whiff of licorice had me convinced that I wouldn’t like it, and so for a long time I steered clear.
At the time, I was managing a half-acre kitchen garden at a Quaker Center while also cooking for retreat groups there a few times a week. My mind was changed forever when a coworker of mind roasted chicken thighs along with sliced fennel and lemon for dinner one night. The slices of fennel caramelized in the chicken fat, turning buttery soft and sweet on the inside, crispy and browned at the tips of the slices that poked from under the chicken thighs. The recipe was simple, calling only for olive oil, salt, and pepper in addition to the chicken, fennel, and lemon. I knew then that I had made a new friend in fennel.
But it wasn’t until I began work at 10th Street that I learned how to grow the plant. The fennel that we grow here at the farm, it turns out, is a particular variety of fennel known as Florence fennel or finocchio. While other fennels are grown as an herb and for their seed (which is technically a fruit, but is usually referred to as seed), Florence fennel is grown specifically for its swollen, bulb-like leaf-base, and used like a vegetable.
Fennel is native to the shores of the Mediterranean, but has become naturalized in many parts of the world. It typically prefers dry soils near the coast or riverbanks (though it seems to like it just fine here on the farm!). The word fennel originally comes from the Latin feniculum or foeniculum (which you can still see in its scientific name above) which are the diminutive forms of fenum and faenum meaning “hay.” Along with carrots, parsley, caraway, and dill, fennel is a member of the Apiaceae family; as a seedling, it looks almost indistinguishable from dill.
Prometheus brings fire to mankind. 1817. Heinrich Fuger.
If you know where to look, history is filled with the close relationships between people and plants. As a Mediterranean plant, it should come as no surprise that fennel is a part of the mythologies of the Greeks and Romans. Prometheus was said to have brought fire down from Mount Olympus on a giant stalk of fennel. A tea made from fennel was said to give warriors strength in battle. The ancient Athenian Pheidippides – before making his famous run from Marathon to Athens for which the grueling race of today is named – made an even more impressive run before the battle. He is said to have run 150 miles in two days from Marathon to Sparta carrying a fennel stalk with him to rally the Spartans to help fight the Persians. The Greek name for fennel, it turns out, is máratho; Marathon, the site of the famous battle of Marathon, literally means “plain of fennel.”
Pheidippides falls to his death after delivering the good news | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The Greeks and Romans also prized fennel as food and medicine, as did the Egyptians across the Mediterranean Sea. In ancient China it was considered a snakebite remedy, and in Middle Ages Europe it was hung over doorways to keep away evil spirits. Catholics used fennel seed as a way to stave off hunger during the Lenten fast.
Fennel has made its way into cuisines all across the globe. All aerial parts of the fennel plant are edible, and different parts of the plant are used for different dishes. Fennel seed is the primary source of flavor in Italian sausage; in parts India, toasted fennel seed (sometimes coated in sugar) is served as an after meal digestive; in Syria and Lebanon, young fennel leaves are used to make ijjeh, an egg dish; in Spain, fennel leaves are used to make berenjenas de Almagro, a pickled eggplant dish; and in Israel, fennel bulb is chopped and mixed with lemon juice, parsley, and olive oil and served as a salad.
Hallie thinks that fennel is divine when grated raw into a salad, but fennel caramelized with chicken and lemon will forever be my favorite fennel dish.
Attached is my recipe for Roasted Chicken with Fennel (adapted from Mark Bittman’s New York Times recipe of the same name). I hope you enjoy!
Until next time,
Roast Chicken with Fennel
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, or as needed
2 bulbs fennel (or enough to lay a single layer on your pan) trimmed and cut into ¼” slices.
Salt and pepper
8 chicken thighs
1 lemon, sliced into thin medallions
several sprigs of fresh rosemary
1. Sprinkle chicken with salt, rub with olive oil, and let sit either overnight in the fridge or a couple of hours on the counter before you’re ready to get cooking.
2. Heat oven to 450˚. Drizzle about half of the olive oil into the bottom of a shallow roasting pan and cover with a layer of fennel. Drizzle remaining oil over the fennel and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for about 10 minutes.
3. Take the fennel out of the oven and layer the chicken thighs over the fennel. Tuck lemon slices and rosemary sprigs between the chicken thighs. Spoon the oil from the pan over the chicken, or drizzle some more olive oil if needed. Roast for 15 minutes, then baste the chicken with pan drippings and rotate the pan.
4. The chicken should be done in around 30-40 minutes. I like to broil it for a minute at the end before serving. Serve chicken with fennel slices over rice and pan drippings spooned over the whole thing.