Roasted fennel with Parmesan

What’s Fresh in April? Fennel

Explore this often-overlooked vegetable’s surprising versatility and user-friendly nature.

Story By Bailey Gilliam

Often overlooked, fennel is a culinary gem with a refreshing anise essence, showcasing its versatility in raw salads, sautéed dishes, roasted delights and even as an addition to soups and sauces. Despite its somewhat intimidating appearance, fennel is surprisingly user-friendly once you’re acquainted with its basics. Not just any vegetable, fennel belongs to the carrot family and has a unique growth above ground, forming a thick, crisp bulb at the base of its stalks. Its feathery leaves and the potential for tiny yellow blossoms add to its depth, making every part of the plant a a unique addition to a variety of dishes.

Health benefits and concerns 

Fennel’s culinary flexibility is matched by its health benefits. It’s a powerhouse of nutrients, including dietary fiber, potassium, vitamin C and essential minerals, all while being low in calories. Rich in potent antioxidants like chlorogenic acid and quercetin, fennel supports overall well-being. It can also play a role in weight management efforts by reducing appetite. Beyond its dietary fiber promoting heart health, fennel’s compounds are researched for their cancer-fighting properties. While incorporating fennel and its seeds into your diet is generally safe, high doses, particularly in supplement form, may interact with certain medications and are not recommended for pregnant women.

Fennel Bulb in garden bed.  Annual fennel, Foeniculum vulgare azoricum. Florence or bulbing fennel. Gardening  background, close up

Gardening versatility

Fennel, a springtime favorite for gardeners, thrives in raised beds, containers and traditional gardens. It prefers a sunny spot and fertile, well-drained soil, enriched with organic matter. Regular watering is key, especially to keep the soil consistently moist. Feel free to harvest fennel leaves as needed, yet take care not to remove more than a third of the plant at any single time to ensure its continued growth and health.

Raw Organic Fennel Bulbs Ready to Cook

What to look for 

When choosing fennel, look for firm, white bulbs with fresh, vibrant fronds. Size is less critical than freshness and quality. Handling older bulbs or toning down the flavor can be simple, ensuring that even the most robust fennel can be enjoyed in various dishes. Beware of the common confusion between fennel and anise at the supermarket; despite their similar flavors, they are distinct. Remember, fennel has a bulb, while anise does not.

How to store

Fennel stays fresh in the refrigerator for about a week. Keep it in the crisper drawer, loosely wrapped in plastic. The fronds may wilt sooner and should be stored separately to maintain their freshness. Fennel is not ideal for freezing, but its fronds and stalks can be frozen and used in broths, braises, soups and sauces. Fennel can be canned, and it is especially good pickled. 

Fresh raw organic florence fennel bulbs or fennel bulb on gray stone background. Top view

Tasty flavor

Contrary to its visual similarity to onions, fennel offers a unique taste profile. The raw bulb has a crunchy texture, infused with an anise flavor that permeates every part of the plant. While the stalks and leaves are also edible and bring their own twist to dishes, culinary uses predominantly appreciate the bulb for its versatility. Raw fennel has a crispness akin to celery, paired with a refreshing licorice essence. Upon cooking, fennel transforms, its sugars caramelizing to reveal a sweeter, more mellow taste and a tender texture that dissolves in the mouth.

No matter how you slice it

The transformative nature of fennel lies in the way it’s prepared. Cutting fennel not only dictates its culinary application but also significantly alters its flavor profile. Here’s how to make the most of fennel’s versatility:

Raw: Achieve a delicate texture by thinly slicing the bulb with a mandoline, discarding any tough parts of the core. Enhance its crispness by marinating it in a mixture of lemon juice, olive oil and a pinch of salt. This method is perfect for integrating into salads, where fennel’s light, aniseed flavor can be complemented with herbs, nuts, shaved Parmesan, mixed greens or a dressing of your choice.

Sautéing: Thinly shaved fennel also shines when sautéed. It quickly absorbs flavors and caramelizes in the pan, softening into a sweet, aromatic component ideal for enriching a variety of dishes.

Roasting: Transform fennel by cutting it into 1/2-inch thick wedges, trimming away the stalks to focus on the bulb. Lay these wedges on a baking sheet, ensuring they have room to breathe, and coat them with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roasted at 400 degrees for 25-35 minutes, fennel becomes irresistibly tender, its edges caramelized to perfection.

Fronds: Don’t overlook the fennel fronds. Finely chopped, they serve as a fragrant garnish, adding a fresh, herby dimension to salads, soups, pasta dishes and more. The stalks and leaves, meanwhile, can be repurposed into a flavorful homemade vegetable broth, ensuring no part of the fennel goes to waste.

3-step recipe

Roasted fennel with Parmesan 

Transform fennel into a delectable side dish with just a handful of ingredients. This roasted fennel with Parmesan is not only scrumptious but also straightforward to prepare, making it a perfect choice to dazzle even those with discerning tastes.

Roasted fennel with Parmesan


4 tablespoons olive oil

4 fennel bulbs, cut horizontally into 1/3-inch slices, fronds reserved

Salt and pepper

1/3 cup freshly shredded Parmesan 


[1] Heat oven to 350 degrees. [2] Lightly oil the bottom of a 13×9 glass baking dish. Arrange the fennel in the dish. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and Parmesan and drizzle with the oil. Bake until the fennel is fork-tender and the top is golden brown, about 45 minutes. [3] Chop enough fennel fronds to equal 2 teaspoons, then sprinkle over the roasted fennel and serve.

Cassandra’s Kitchen Store 

Ina Garten’s Potato-Fennel Gratin

Elevate your au gratin with this recipe from Ina Garten, where fennel’s transformation into a mild and sweet element when sautéed with onions brings an unexpected twist to the classic dish. The blend of flavors not only enhances the gratin but also introduces a complexity that will impress any palate.

Ina Garten’s Potato-Fennel Gratin


2 fennel bulbs, stalks removed

1 yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced crosswise

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled (4 large potatoes)

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream, divided

2 1/2 cups grated Gruyère cheese, divided (1/2 lb.)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper


[1] Heat oven to 350 and butter a 10x15x2-inch baking dish. [2] Cut the bulbs in half lengthwise and slice them crosswise, making approximately 4 cups of sliced fennel. Put the olive oil and butter in a medium sauté pan, and sauté the fennel and onions together over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, until tender. [3] Thinly slice the potatoes and place them in a large bowl with the 2 cups of cream, 2 cups of Gruyère, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Add the fennel and onion mixture and mix well. [4] Pour the potato mixture into the prepared baking dish. Press down lightly to smooth the top. Combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of cream and 1/2 cup of Gruyère, and sprinkle evenly on the top. Bake for 1-1 1/4 hours until the potatoes are tender and the top is browned and bubbly. Allow to cool for 10 minutes and serve hot.

Copyright 1999, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, Clarkson Potter/Publishers, All Rights Reserved.

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