Can you name a vegetable that promotes longevity and vigor, inspires courage, that maintains heart skin health, eradicates poisons, strengthen the eyesight, staves off hunger, and in addition to all that keeps away evil spirits? According to legends that is what fennel can do! 🙂
Fennel is a herb with a history of medicinal and culinary uses, stretching back to pre-historic times.
It is a beautiful plant with feathery leaves and clusters of golden yellow flowers arranged like fingers on a hand. The plants bloom in late summer, the green seeds forming in the fall. The seeds ripen to a yellowish brown color and can be harvested before winter sets in. Fennel plants can grow up to six feet tall.
All parts of the fennel plant are edible. Fennel seeds are aromatic and sweet, with a flavor similar to anise.
Fennel was used by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians as a food and medicine and as a snake bite remedy in ancient China.
In ancient times, the herb was thought to promote longevity and vigor, as well as courage, and was used for these purposes by both soldiers and Olympians. Pliny (AD 23-79), the Roman author ofThe Naturalis Historie, believed fennel to be so powerful that he used the aromatic herb to treat 22 different ailments.
There is evidence that fennel was a staple in the household of King Edward I of England. His account books from 1281 listed a purchase of 8 1/2 pounds of fennel seed – a month’s supply.
The word Marathon in Greek means ‘place with fennel’. Legend has it that a battle was fought between the Athenians and invading Persians there in 490 BC. And an Athenian runner carried a fennel stalk on his run to carry the news of the victory to Athens, later inspiring the marathon race.
Fennel seeds were chewed by Roman soldiers and Christian monks to stave off hunger. It was used as an appetite suppressant and a weight-loss aid by the common people too, being eaten during Lent and fasts to stave off hunger. On Church mandated ‘Fasting days’, the faithful used fennel to get through the day, a tradition supposedly brought to the United States by the Puritans. They would bring handkerchiefs with fennel seed to nibble on during long services to stave off hunger; which led to fennel seeds often being referred to as ‘meetin’ seeds’.
During the Middle Ages it was hung over doorways to drive away evil spirits. Fennel seeds inserted into keyholes were thought to protect a dwelling from ghosts on any night but particularly Midsummer’s Eve.
Fennel seeds are baked into breads, biscuits, stuffing, and Italian sausages, and added to sweet pickles and sauerkraut. The large leafstalk bases are eaten as a vegetable, raw or cooked. When steeped into a tea it was believed that fennel was also a useful for losing weight.
The essential oil from the seeds is added to perfumes, soaps, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. Fennel oil, seeds or extracts are also used to flavor prepared foods including meats, ice cream, candy, baked goods and condiments as well as liqueurs like sambuca, non-alcoholic beverages and toothpaste.
Both Eastern and Western herbal traditions recognize its medicinal qualities.
As the swallowtail butterflies love fennel, it can be grown in butterfly gardens. Swallowtail caterpillars will feed on the leaves without overtaking and destroying the plant.
- 1 onion, peeled, minced
- 2 small leeks, white and light green parts only, cleaned and minced
- 1 sprig fresh thyme
- 6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
- 1 large bulb fennel, trimmed and chopped
- 2 tablespoons low-fat milk
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Heat a largish pot over low heat. Add the onion, leeks, thyme, salt, pepper and ¼ cup of the broth, cover the pan and cook over low heat until the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes.
- Add the fennel, cover, and continue to cook until the fennel is tender, about 15 minutes.
- Add the remaining chicken stock and bring it to a boil. Cover, lower the heat and simmer gently for 25 minutes.
- Puree the soup using an immersion blender or in a blender until smooth. Strain it through a fine-mesh strainer. Return any of the puree that does not pass through the sieve to the blender, puree again and re-strain, repeating until all the soup has been used.
- Just before serving, slowly bring the soup to a simmer, remove from the heat and whisk in the milk.
- Ladle into bowls and serve garnished with a spoon of red pepper sauce.