After some brief research, I learned that fennel can reach up to 10 feet in height at full maturity, which I imagine would be quite the site to behold.
Growing wild in numerous sectors of the greater Santa Barbara area, most notably near creeks and other areas close to fresh water sources, is another perennial herb that is often mistaken for a fennel called anise. While both have a distinct black licorice aroma and flavor, and the seeds of fully mature anise and fennel plants are used as a flavoring agent, it is the young bulb portion of the fennel plant that is the desired culinary portion when purchased at the local farmers markets.
About 6 inches in diameter and about a foot in height, these are much smaller specimens than those that reach peak elevation.
The cream-colored bulb of fresh fennel has hollow green stem extensions and a frilly umbrella-like top, brimming with aromatic notes of black licorice. The licorice notes also translate as the dominant flavor of the bulb, followed by a very refreshing finish. An acquired taste for many, a fennel bulb can be enjoyed in both raw and cooked preparations, and while the green stems and frilly tops are often discarded, I find they make for a nice flavoring agent in broths and sauces.
Fennel can be roasted in the oven, sautéed and grilled, as well as shaved raw and added to salads and slaws. Fennel infuses a wonderful underlying flavor to soups and stews, when caramelized as you would onions and enjoyed as a side, or when quick pickled with other seasonal root vegetables.
As fennel cooks, it becomes sweeter in flavor, and quite soft and pairs very well with rich meats and sauces.
This week I prepared a very simple, yet flavorful carrot and fennel soup, infused with a little apple and sweet potato. I started by caramelizing the fennel bulb in a pan before blending to a smooth consistency.
Curry Infused Fennel Bulb and Carrot Soup
2 tablespoons butter.
1 medium fennel bulb ends discarded and sliced.
1-pound carrots, peeled and diced.
1 large, sweet potato peeled and diced.
1 large apple peeled and diced.
1 small onion peeled and diced.
2 14.5-ounce cans low sodium chicken broth.
1 14.5 ounce can coconut milk (I used light).
1 tablespoon curry powder (add more as desired to taste).
1 tablespoon brown sugar.
Salt and pepper to taste.
½ cup fresh cilantro leaves.
1 lime cut into wedges.
In a medium heavy pot, add butter at medium heat and sauté fennel, carrot, sweet potato, apple, and onion. Turn regularly and cook for about 8 minutes, or until vegetables begin to caramelize. Add broth, coconut milk, curry powder, brown sugar and season with salt and pepper. Simmer for about 10 minutes or until all ingredients are soft and well incorporated. Blend until smooth and adjust seasoning and curry powder to taste. Garnish with fresh cilantro leaves and lime wedge. Yield: Serves 4.