Fennel seeds — the oblong, pale chartreuse seeds that can be harvested from the perennial fennel plant — are used in several different global cuisines to provide subtle licorice flavor and faint notes of sweetness while still keeping a dish savory.
Fennel seed is a common ingredient in some Indian regional dishes and is a component of chai spice blend. But it’s also a staple in Italian dishes, particularly those with sausage, is a part of Chinese five-spice blend and is used in some Middle Eastern dishes. You will see fennel seed sometimes in baked goods, too, such as cookies and breads.
In natural medicine, fennel seed has been used for centuries to aid digestion, help infants with colic and freshen breath.
If a recipe calls for fennel seed, it’s usually a very small amount, no more than a couple of teaspoons. To release the flavor, the recipe will often call for crushing the seeds, sometimes after toasting them. You don’t need a spice grinder to use fennel seed unless you are making a fine powder. For everyday cooking, I’d recommend just crushing the seeds with a rolling pin or even a heavy pot.
If you’ve never used fennel seed before, buy a few tablespoons in the bulk section from the supermarket. Stored in a cool, dark, dry place, this whole spice will last you a very long time. Begin your fennel adventure by crushing some seeds and stirring into olive oil, maybe adding a little salt and garlic and even another dried Italian herb, such as marjoram or basil. Use this as a dip for pieces of a baguette.
If you are already a fennel fan, try this white bean and sausage recipe that includes just a bit of freshly crushed fennel seed. If you can’t find Toulouse sausage, you can use regular bulk Italian sausage.
White Beans With Toulouse Sausage, Broccoli and Garlic
White beans and broccoli are a wonderful combination — with the sausage and rosemary, and being so easy to make, this dish is a winner.
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large head broccoli, broken up into smaller florets
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
4 Toulouse sausages (about 14 ounces), meat squeezed out roughly into chunks
1 large onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, finely sliced
A pinch of red pepper flakes, to taste
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, slightly crushed
1 good-size sprig fresh rosemary, leaves finely chopped
1 (14-ounce) can cannellini or butter beans, rinsed and drained
Parmesan or pecorino cheese
2/3 cup breadcrumbs, freshly toasted in a pan or in the oven
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Cook the broccoli until tender, about 6 minutes, and drain well.
In a large pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and cook, stirring often, for about 7 minutes, until the sausage is cooked through and beginning to brown in places. Remove the sausage from the pan with a slotted spoon, leaving behind the fat and any cooking juices. Set to one side.
Add another tablespoon of olive oil and the onion to the same frying pan and cook over moderate heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until soft and translucent. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, fennel seeds, rosemary and beans and stir over the heat so that the flavors meld and the mix begins to smell fragrant, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the cooked broccoli, mixing well. Taste for seasoning, adjusting with salt and pepper if necessary. Divide the mix between bowls, topping each with some shavings of Parmesan or pecorino, a drizzle of olive oil and the toasted breadcrumbs.
— From “The Art of the Pantry: Save Time and Money with 150 Delicious Meals Using Everyday Ingredients” by Claire Thomson (Quadrille, $29.99)