FENNEL: THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF THIS EXTRAORDINARY VEGETABLE

Growing up in one of the Eastern European countries in the 1980s, some of the well-known herbs and spices, even vegetables, were not available to us. Ginger, for example, was nowhere to be found in the supermarkets. Celery was of a different kind than the one widely used today – it had very tough and thin stalks that we did not eat – we only used its leaves and roots, mainly as an addition to soups. When it comes to fennel, I remember that my mother used to season pea stews with its dried feathery leaves.

Regarding this plant, I cherish another memory related to my beloved grandfather. Once or twice a week before lunch, he used to take a sip of his favorite liquor made with fennel extract, called “mastika”. He suffered from stomach ulcer and indigestion and he said a few sips of this drink eased his problems.

When I became a mother, my two months old daughter suffered from terrible colic pains. My husband and I spent countless sleepless night trying to soothe her. At the suggestion of my friend Vicky, the pharmacist, we began giving our baby fennel tea and she gradually stopped crying inconsolably and writhing in pain.  

What do we know about fennel?

Fennel – foeniculum vulgare is a perennial herbaceous herb in the parsley family. It is native to Southern Europe and used widely in the Mediterranean cuisine. It grows up to 6 feet in height with tall and feathery leaves that resemble dill. It has tall stalks that look like celery. All the parts of the plant are edible – the crunchy bulb, the stems, the seeds and the leaves.

The bulb consists of hard and crunchy layers and it has a unique, fresh and slightly sweet aroma, resembling that of anise and licorice.

The light brown seeds are oval-shaped, with vertical stripes over the surface.

Apart from being used for culinary purposes, fennel offers various health benefits that people from ancient times were familiar with.

All parts of fennel are a rich source of vitamins B and C. They protect us from premature aging, keeping our skin looking youthful and healthy. Fennel extracts are therefore used in many skin products, having shown anti-aging effects on the skin.

Fennel contains the anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting compound called anethole. This phytonutrient reduces two molecules that trigger inflammation, alter genes and signal cancer.

This finding was published in the Journal Nutrition and Cancer in a 2012 study.

Fennel bulb and fennel seeds are a rich source of fiber, which keeps our intestinal system healthy and prevents colon cancer. It speeds up our metabolism, reduces our appetite, eliminates access water in our body and aids us in weight loss.

Fennel seeds are known for their anti-oxidant capacities. Flavonoid compounds such as kaempferol, quercetin, limonene, anisic aldehyde, pinene, myrcene, fenchone, chavicol, and cineole.offer us protection against free radicals that can cause numerous health problems.

I have personally witnessed its beneficial effect on colicky babies. Its carminative substance acts against the formation of gas and reduces spasms in the intestines that cause the terrible colic symptoms. It also relieves gastric pains and discomfort. This benefit of fennel has been scientifically proven in a 2003 study, published in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine.

Apart from soothing babies, fennel also brings relief to women suffering from menstrual pains since it  is antispasmodic – it causes muscles to relax.

Fennel seeds are a rich source of minerals like iron, magnesium, zink, selenium, potassium, and copper. Each of these minerals is necessary for our health and the proper functioning of our bodies. Fennel seeds also abound in vitamins A, E, C and B-complex vitamins like thiamin, pyridoxine, riboflavin and niacin.

Vitamin K and calcium contained in the fennel seeds protect us from osteoporosis and reduced mineral density in the bones.

HOW TO GROW FENNEL

Fennel is a perennial plant, which means that it persists for many growing seasons. If you plant it from a seed, you will see its full growth and bloom in the second year. Fennel is not a demanding plant as it does not require much care.

It is best to choose a sunny location, preferably with acidic and well drained soil.  If you plant it in rich and fertilized soil, the amount of its aromatic oils will be reduced. It is also important to grow fennel apart from other plants, especially dill, since they will cross-pollinate and produce seeds that taste odd. The best time of the year to grow fennel is in spring, as soon as the soil warms. It is recommended that you soak the fennel seeds for two days since it will speed up the germination.  

Sow the seeds 11 feet apart and cover with a handful of soil. If you plant them in rows, the distance between them should be 3 feet. Water moderately to keep the soil moist, between 1 and 2 weeks.

Collect the seeds when they turn brown, before they begin popping off the flower heads.

You will see the first flowers in approximately 90 days. Fennel grows up to 6 feet tall and you can cut back the plant early in the season to ensure bushy growth.

FENNEL RECIPES

Fennel can be used for both savory and sweet dishes. I would like to share two salad recipes with fennel that are truly delicious and easy to make.

Fennel, Orange and Shallot Salad

  • 1 fennel bulb
  • 2 large shallots
  • 1 large orange without seeds
  • Black pepper, freshly cracked
  • Olive oil
  • Sea salt

Clean the fennel thoroughly and trim its top.  Slice the bulb and the shallots very  thinly.  Cut the orange into wedges and carefully remove the skin and pith. Remove the orange flesh and cut it into bits. Mix the fennel, shallots and orange pieces with a little olive oil, salt and pepper.

This is a classic Italian salad that you will surely enjoy.

Fresh Fennel and Lemon Slaw

  • 1 large bulb fennel
  • 1 head red radicchio
  • 2 lemons
  • 1/2 head green cabbage
  •  3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • Salt and pepper

Finely chop the fronds of the fennel bulb and the stalks. Also chop the radicchio and cabbage. Mix all the vegetables together. Pour lemon juice over the salad and season it with salt and pepper. Whisk the ingredients for the dressing and add them to the salad.

Keep the salad in the fridge for an hour before serving.

FENNEL TEA RECIPE

Here is how you can make a homemade fennel tea.

  • Pour hot water over 1 teaspoon of dried fennel seeds per cup of tea.
  • Do not boil the seeds as they will lose a lot of nutrients.
  • Cover the cup and wait for 10 minutes. Sweeten it with raw honey according to your taste and drink it 3 times a day.
  • If you have digestion problems, drink it after meals.

Fennel has become one of my favorite herbs. I suggest that you try it, too!  

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