Fennel is a lesser know member of the carrot family. It has a history as an aphrodisiac food. But the benefits of fennel are considered more useful to women than men.
Why? Well, this is possibly one of the most interesting fennel facts. This bulbous root vegetable is notably high in phytoestrogens, natural estrogen-like chemicals found in plants. In fact, in the 1930s, it was considered as a possible source of synthetic estrogen.
Fennel in history
Throughout history, fennel was linked with healthy circulation, improved vision and inflammation reduction. In fact, in Ancient Greece, the bulb was called marathon for its association with strength, longevity and courage.
Pliny the Elder, the legendary Roman scientist and scholar, promoted the medicinal benefits of fennel and recommended approximately two-dozen remedies using fennel. Furthermore, by medieval times, fennel was not only used as a curative but was coveted for a believed ability to protect against witchcraft and evil spirits.
Health benefits of fennel
Today, we know that fennel offers a number of phytonutrients that promote antioxidant activity in the body (the source of its anti-inflammatory effects). It is a source of manganese, calcium, magnesium, iron and fiber, all of which are important for both libido and longevity.
And it might come as a surprise that fennel is also a good vitamin C source. The vitamin C found in fennel bulbs is shown to be antimicrobial. It is not only useful for its anti-aging properties but may also be useful in boosting the immune system.
Cooking with fennel
The variety most commonly used in cooking is called Florence fennel. The plant’s feathery fronds resemble dill and are used similarly as a seasoning in Mediterranean dishes. And the stalks are fibrous like celery. They make an excellent seasoning for soups and stocks. (Be sure to try my Hot Sausage Stew recipe.)
The bulb, which contains the most nutrients, can be thinly sliced and served raw, sautéed, grilled or roasted. (If you’re ready to experience the flavors of it raw, try my crunchy, citrusy Shaved Fennel and Tangerine Salad.)
But we’re most familiar with the flavor of fennel as a spice. The vegetable’s seeds are a prominent flavoring in Italian sausage, Mediterranean stews and even, occasionally, baked goods. And ground into a powder, its seeds are also a key ingredient in complex, Indian spice mixes and in Chinese five-spice powder. (More on the flavor and benefits of fennel seeds below.)
Fennel seeds and fennel pollen
A hot trend in recent years is fennel pollen. It is collected from the flowers of the wild plant, dried and sold in tins through gourmet retailers. Rub it on fish before grilling, finish a pasta dish or dust a salad with this subtle, anise-like flavoring.
Fennel seeds, on the other hand, are not anything new but they are popular–and for good reason. Fennel seeds share both a light, anise-like flavor and many of the health benefits with the bulb. But the seeds are considered more beneficial because of their powerful essential oils. The benefits of fennel seeds include even more manganese, iron and calcium than is found in fresh fennel. The essential oils in fennel seeds are also considered anti-inflammatory.
Fennel seeds have many uses. In some cultures, they’re simply chewed to freshen breath. You can crush them and steep them in water to make tea. You can toast them and add them to rubs and marinades to give a dish a hint of their sweet, licorice flavor. They’re also added to breads and other baked goods to add both flavor and texture.
This article was written in 2012 and most recently updated in April 2020.
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