By Cat, Nov 2008 (Photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons)
This is a very versatile vegetable and herb. Most parts of the plant are edible, including: leaves, stems (bulbs), seeds, and flowers; all have a licorice flavor.
Fennel has small yellow flowers and feathery green leaves (right, from Wikimedia Commons), similar to dill. Use the leaves and flowers in soups, sauces and casseroles that also use the seeds or bulbs.
Fennel Bulb and Stems
Fennel’s stems begin at the ground in a cluster that resembles a bulb, then grow upward, singly in stalks, resembling celery (see photo, above). The bulbs can be used raw in salads, roasted, braised, or cooked in soups, sauces and casseroles. The stalks can be used as you would celery, to flavor broths, stuffings, sauces, etc..
If using fennel bulb in a cooked recipe, it is best to parboil it first (after slicing or sectioning) for about 8 minutes in salted boiling water; then drain. You may wish to save the water for use in the recipe. However, if using a slow cooker (crock pot), parboiling is not necessary if it will be cooked for 6 or more hours.
Fennel seeds (right, from Wikimedia Commons) have a distinctly licorice flavor, similar to anise, and are commonly used to flavor Italian sausage and sauces, vinegars, olive oil, salad dressings, soups, eggs and egg casseroles, breads, cookies and cakes. See Herbs & Spices, A – F for more about fennel seeds.
Perhaps the most surprising use for fennel seeds is to flavor baked goods, such as cookies. But in Europe, the use of herb seeds (anise, fennel, lavender, etc.) in baked goods is common.
If you are making a vegetarian version of a dish that calls for mild Italian sausage, you can approximate the flavor of the sausage by warming, then crushing fennel seeds, and adding to the dish. (Or to approximate hot Italian sausage, add crushed red pepper to the fennel seeds).