Fennel is a multi-purpose culinary plant. The fennel plant's leaves are a cooking herb; its pollen is considered a delicacy. Fennel seeds are a popular culinary spice used in breads, savories and sweets. Fennel seed has a warm, sweet, aromatic bouquet, and a flavor reminiscent of licorice-like anise seed.
Sometimes called sweet cumin or large cumin because it resembles the other spice, fennel is more closely related [though does not taste like] parsley, carrots, dill and coriander.
Native to the Mediterranean, Fennel was called Marathon by the ancient Greeks, for fennel grew wild in the field where the famous battle was fought. Fennel was said to symbolize flattery, and be an emblem of heroism. The Romans spread the use of fennel throughout Europe, where, in medieval times, fennel seeds were chewed on at church, and on fasting days, to suppress hunger.
Today, fennel is a key component of the Chinese Five Spice blend, and of some curry powders. Used in olden times as a digestive aid, today several liquors are flavored with fennel, including aquavit and absinthe. Fennel makes a nice tea as well.
In Italy, whole fennel seed is what makes sausage taste like Italian sausage. Fennel is ground for Italian tomato sauces of all kinds (especially pizza sauce), and for pork roast. The English use fennel in almost all fish dishes, especially court bouillon for poaching fish and shellfish. Use fennel with orange peel and red bell peppers for easy Provencal chicken.
Fennel is also used to flavor butter, cheese spreads and salad dressings. Fennel blends well with game and some grains such as barley and rye berries. It is often added to cabbage, beets, pickles, lentils and potatoes.