A common plant in 18th-century Charleston kitchen gardens, fennel—or finocchio—had all but disappeared from local tables until recently. It was once so commonly planted in the Southeast that it has naturalized in some areas. Old homesites along riverbanks are often dotted with the feathery, dill-like stalks of “wild” or “dog” fennel. Native to the Mediterranean and southern Asia, finocchio probably came to the Lowcountry with early Greek settlers, though by 1957, when Charleston’s Ladies of the Philoptochos Society compiled the excellent Popular Greek Recipes, it was no longer mentioned.
Fennel’s flavor is often compared to that of licorice (which belongs to a completely different plant family) or to anise (only vaguely related), and many grocers have the annoying habit of marketing it as anise, adding to the confusion. Some might find fennel’s sweet, celerylike crispness more to their liking than the bittersweetness of aniseed. When I lived in Italy, we would dip chilled fresh ribs of raw fennel into salted olive oil as an appetizer, in the same way we Sandlappers might dunk celery into pimiento cheese. Perhaps the classic preparation is à la Grecque, poached in a seasoned court bouillon and served chilled. In southern France fish is grilled over a fire of the dried stalks. You can stuff fresh stalks into the cavity of whole oily fish such as blues or Spanish mackerels for a similar effect.
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