If you've ever bitten into a juicy Italian sausage link hot off the grill, or heaped sauerkraut, corned beef and Swiss cheese between two slices of toasted Jewish rye bread, you've tasted fennel. Fennel, from bulb to feather-fronded top, gives foods a slightly-sweet, gentle anise flavor. Considered an aphrodisiac in many parts of the world, fennel freshens breath and relieves stomach distress. Fennel tops, which some cooks discard, taste delicious whether served raw or cooked.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Nutrient Database for Standard Nutrition lists fennel seed under "Spices and Herbs," and fennel bulb under "Vegetables and Veg Products." It lists the stalks, leaves and core of the bulb as "refuse." But cooks and gastronomes around the world use the entire plant for everything from flavoring soups, breads and pastries to adding character to fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kim chee. The disparity arises because the USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Nutrition lists the composition of foods according to their use and availability in the United States.
Fennel tops add subtle flavor to fish sauces and mayonnaise. The stalks and green leaves of the fennel top also add body and flavor to soups, vegetable- and meat-based soup stocks and roasted meats. Liz Crain, author of "Food Lover's Guide to Portland." recommends serving fennel tops braised or sauteed. Italians in Naples eat "carosellas" -- the younger stems of the fennel plant -- raw, and sometimes use the larger hollow stems to sip wine, according to Francois Couplan, author of "Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America."
Cutting as close to the bulb as possible results in the largest amount of usable fennel top. Rinsing the tops under cold running water and patting them dry between layers of paper towel allows the tops to stay crisper when added to salads or sauteed as a side dish, and mayonnaise will not get watery. While it is OK to chop limp fennel tops and add them to soups or broth, always discard wilted or brown leaves or stem portions. Once you cut the top and bottom ends of larger-diameter stems straight across, you can use them to sip wine or other beverages.
Fennel tops pair well with roasted meats, especially pork, chicken and lamb. The sweet, light anise flavor melds with citrus fruits and juices, adds character to tomato soup and enhances salads made with delicate-flavored fruits such as apples or pears. Fennel flavors a number of alcoholic beverages, including akvavit, gin and absinthe.