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Poor, misunderstood fennel

Considering fresh fennel's numerous hurdles, it's no wonder the plant hasn't won a place in many kitchens.

Wild fennel, which can grow to 8 feet tall, has been dubbed an invasive weed. The much smaller, cultivated fennel is often mislabeled "anise" in American supermarkets. Compounding fennel's identity crisis, shoppers aren't sure whether it's a vegetable or an herb.

The United States' nearly 100-year ban on absinthe — an infamous alcoholic mixture traditionally containing fennel — likely contributed to the plant's ignominy in this country.

"A lot of people don't know anything about it and wonder what it is," says Suzi Fry, who has grown fennel for 18 years on her organic farm near Talent.

But cooks who make fennel's acquaintance are won over by its subtly sweet, licorice-like flavor and the root's refreshing crunch, Fry says.

"People ask me, 'When's the fennel going to be here?'"

Bunches of Fry's fennel waved from sacks and backpacks last week at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market in Ashland.

"This is the time to get it," says Scott Fleuter, 48, of Ashland. "You got to get when it's fresh."

Ashland's former police chief says he adds the fennel to soup, which thickens slightly from starch in the fennel bulb.

"It just gives a real rich flavor ... a lot of nutrients," Fleuter says.

On the advice of an Ashland naturopathic physician, Irene Bernstein, 60, of Ashland, also planned to put

fennel in a stew with other peak-season root vegetables like daikon, carrots and celery root. The dish would provide an infusion of minerals, Bernstein says.

"It's not real strong, at least when you cook with it," Bernstein says of fennel. "It actually smells stronger than it tastes."

Fennel has long been used in cuisines of the Mediterranean region, the Middle East and India. Fennel seed is a common ingredient in Italian sausages and northern European rye breads while Indians chew fennel seed as a breath-freshener. The aromatic compound that imparts fennel's flavor also is found in anise and star anise, both potent spices tasting of licorice.

Fennel is a prime crop for late fall, Fry says, because cooler weather forestalls bolting, and fennel doesn't suffer from a frost. Priced at $1.50 apiece, fennel will be among the last produce items Fry will sell at the growers market's final session Tuesday in Ashland and on Nov. 15 in Medford.

Fry suggests roasting fennel with other root vegetables to bring out its sweetness. Thin slices of the raw root-end complement pears and walnuts in a fall salad. Try fresh fennel in the following recipes.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

Fennel Photo by Jim Craven - Jim Craven