Fennel is a perennial herb indigenous to the Mediterranean that is closely related to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander. Finocchio, or Florence fennel, is a selection with a swollen, bulb like stem base that is used as a vegetable, both raw and cooked. Its flavor is similar to anise, but milder, sweeter and more aromatic.
Fennel bulbs, foliage, flowers and seeds are used in the cooking of Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The bulbs are treated as a crisp vegetable that is baked, stewed, sautéed, grilled or eaten raw. The leaves, which resemble dill, are delicately flavored and used as garnishes or in salads or soups. The seeds are dried and used as an aromatic anise-flavored spice. The most potent, and expensive, form of fennel is its small flowers, sold as fennel pollen.
The recipes that follow call for fennel bulbs, commonly available from autumn through early spring when they are at their peak. Choose bulbs that are clean, firm and without signs of splitting, bruising or spotting. The bulb should be white or pale green, and the stalks and leaves should be green. There should be no signs of flowering buds because that would suggest that the plant is past maturity. Store fresh fennel in the refrigerator for up to four days; after that, the flavor fades.
To trim a fennel bulb for cooking, first cut the stalks away from the bulb at the point where they meet. Remove any bruised or damaged outer leaves, then slice a quarter inch or so off the bottom, halve the bulb lengthwise, and remove the hard core in the center of the bulb. Depending on the instructions in your recipe, you can then proceed to slice the fennel vertically through the bulb and, if you need a dice, cut the slices crosswise. Rinse the trimmed fennel under cold running water and you are good to go.