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One of the most important things to remember when cooking fennel is that it can impart a strong licorice flavor to the dish. Some people do not like licorice, so when cooking fennel for a group with unknown tastes, it is best to use fennel carefully and sparingly. In many ways, cooking fennel can be similar to cooking shallots and onions, as it tends to caramelize in a similar way when it is sauteed or grilled. The flavor of fennel can be compared to star anise, a common dried herb, but fennel tends to have a less potent licorice flavor than star anise. Fennel is a green herb with yellow flowers, and the whole plant, including the flowers and fronds as well as the seeds and stalk, can be used when cooking.
Well-paired with a tart flavor, fennel almost always appears alongside citrus ingredients like orange juice or lemon zest. Fennel, sometimes called sweet anise, can be eaten raw, like in a salad, or as part of a hot dish. It is commonly used with meats like seafood, pork, and chicken. Sausages frequently contain licorice notes originating from fennel in the recipe. Using fennel in soup stocks to flavor the base is also popular, especially when preparing chicken stock.
Cooking fennel can be somewhat similar to cooking an onion. Like an onion, when fennel is roasted or sauteed, the sugar in it caramelizes. When sugar is heated until it browns, that is called caramelization. Caramelized fennel has a sweeter flavor with a lighter, more tempered licorice flavor than raw fennel. Since caramelizing makes the licorice element in the fennel flavor less potent, this can be a good technique to use when preparing it for guests who are unfamiliar with fennel.
Good cooks employ this potent and flavorful plant with care, because even a slight fennel overkill can overpower a dish, particularly if the rest of the flavors in the dish are light. Different fennel plants have different textures and levels of flavor potency, so it is important to examine and taste the fennel before deciding how much to use. If it is uncertain whether dining guests like fennel, it may be best to include fennel in a sauce served on or with the dish, and not directly in the dish. This allows the diners to decide whether they want the fennel flavored sauce on their food.
Harsh growing conditions or poorly balanced soil can cause inconsistencies in fennel plants. When soil is deficient in nutrients or the plant is underwatered, normally tender green fennel stems can become woody and tough. These differences in foliage texture can necessitate a change in the process of cooking fennel. Particularly tough shoots may require preparation by steaming or longer cooking times to render them tender enough to enjoy.