Fennel is essential to Italian and Indian cooking – and sublime with fish

Root vegetables, comforting and filling though they are, don't have a reputation for being exotic or exciting. Glamour escapes the humble potato and swede. Carrots are un- deniably quotidian. And turnips, well, the fact that they are Baldrick's favourite food says it all.

But in the rush to get our five-a-day and prepare quick, tried-and-tested recipes, another root vegetable, fennel, is often overlooked.

We don't treat it as an everyday ingredient, even though it is available all year round. Nor do we appreciate its versatility – it is wonderful in salads, baked, roasted and as a stand-alone dish – and its marvellous and unique bitter aniseed flavour, its fresh mint-green hue and crunchy texture.

"It's a great shame we don't use fennel more," says Gregg Wallace, the verbose Masterchef judge and owner of restaurant Wallace & Co, which opened last month with the aim of providing fresh, seasonal meals. "The Italians use it a lot, and that's where most of the fennel in the UK comes from. I like braising it in vegetable stock, or baking it in cream. It can be a dish in itself with some blue cheese melted on top."

Wallace loves fennel's sharp and strong flavour, but warns that it is incredibly pungent and should be used with care. "That old cooking adage comes into play with fennel: you can put in, but you can't take away."

Jamie Speed-Andrews, a senior buyer for the organic produce company Abel & Cole, likens fennel to another old school foodstuff, Marmite.

"You either love it or hate it," he says. "The flavour is very distinct." It is no doubt that it is this strong flavour, coupled with a knowledge gap about cooking techniques, that makes fennel unpopular among British consumers.

Abel & Cole struggled to find a supplier in the UK because farmers are reluctant to grow anything in small quantities. When they did find one, the lack of interest from supermarkets eventually led to that supplier abandoning the fennel crop. Fennel seems to be trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy; if it is tricky to get hold of, we are unlikely to start using it more and discover its many virtues.

Abel & Cole now source their fennel from an organic farmer called Massimo in Sicily. The Mediterranean is the home of fennel, though the vegetable is cultivated all over the world and is in season in the UK from early summer right through to the beginning of winter.

It is a staple vegetable and herb in Italian cuisine and was prized by Roman soldiers who believed it would keep them in good health. Women took it to keep their weight down, and it was chewed to help digestion. Today, fennel remains a key ingredient in many digestive teas.

It also has a racier aspect to it. It is a stimulant, and one of the three key components of the Swiss-French spirit absinthe, although contemporary brews often omit it. It boasts aphrodisiac qualities, and is said to mimic the female hormone oestrogen. It has even been prescribed as a natural breast enlarger.

From Italy, where fennel is used raw in salads and cooked in pastas, sausages, meatballs and risottos, fennel quickly spread south across to the Middle East and India, where it was assimilated into the national cuisine.

The bulb of the plant is eaten as a vegetable and the stalks and deep green fronds can be chopped up for flavouring.

But the Indians treasure most of all the seeds, produced by the plant's flowerheads. They use them as a spice, a seasoning, an infusion and a mouth freshener. Fennel seeds have always been part of British Indian food writer Ravinder Bhogal's diet.

Bhogal, who was crowned the "new Fanny Craddock" by Gordon Ramsay on his F Word programme, has what she calls a "childish addiction" to the rainbow-coloured, sugar-coated fennel seeds sold in Indian supermarkets. She recommends using the bulb to make salad or to roast or braise with pork or fish. "My favourite use of fennel is with fish," she says.

"Particularly with oily fish like salmon and sea bass, because its aniseed flavour really complements them". She adds that "Fennel is also great rubbed with olive oil and chilli flakes, and then grilled on the barbecue or roasted in the oven. Or to make great pork crackling, by rubbing it with sea salt and cracked fennel seeds."

Bhogal agrees that the wonders of fennel are not adequately exploited in British kitchens. "Chefs like Jamie Oliver have done a fantastic job of demystifying this curious-looking bulb, but I would encourage more and more people to eat it. I love that you can use all parts of it, from the seeds and bulb to the fronds."

She explains: "The bulb may look scary but it is really easy to prepare. Simply top and tail it, reserving the fronds to use as a herb in salads or stews, and then slice the remaining bulb vertically. Make sure you slice it very finely if using raw in salads; keep it more chunky for roasting."

Recipes with fennel in Bhogal's book Cook in Boots include Saffron Fish Stew and Roasted Brill with Fennel, Tomatoes and Lemons (both of which use the bulb and the seeds).

Mat Follas, winner of Masterchef 2009 and owner of The Wild Garlic in Beaminster, Dorset, is another fan of fennel seeds.

He uses them along with the tops with rabbit and fish and in salads, and finds it frustrating that they are more difficult to source than the bulbs in the UK. At the moment he buys from a supplier in Cornwall who enjoys an extended season of eight months, and he and is busy planting his own fennel beds at the restaurant.

But he treats fennel's strong flavour with caution. "I don't like it raw, but as a cooked ingredient it is fantastic," he says. "You need to be sparing with it. I often find myself reducing the flavour by slow-roasting it, so that it is much more palatable. We also do a simple fennel and thyme dish, baked slowly with a crumble top."

Follas describes fennel as the ultimate "umami" ingredient – the Japanese term for one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter, and usually translated as "savouriness". It describes quite a meaty taste, even when referring to a vegetable.

It is no coincidence there is no direct translation in English; it is a flavour British cuisine overlooks, just as our cooks overlook fennel. But if you have a vegetable box delivered or shop at markets, you'll have noticed fennel making regular appearances over the past few weeks. Now is as good a time as any to work it into your recipe repertoire.

Fennel recipes: Salads and stews

Mat Follas's Fennel & Potato Gratin

This is a lovely baked dish for winter and fills the house with yummy aromas while baking. You can make a plain dauphinoise with only potatoes, or try other vegetables in place of the fennel: onion, sweet potato and squash all make great gratin dishes. We make a fennel and thyme gratin in the restaurant which gets rave reviews from diners.

Serves two as a main

4 medium potatoes (Maris Piper or King Edward)
1 bulb of fennel
200ml cream
200ml milk
Parmesan cheese

Chop several garlic cloves finely and fry in a pan with a little butter. Once translucent and starting to brown, add the cream and heat slowly, adding milk when simmering, then take off the heat. Leave for 30 minutes to infuse. This creates a lovely, nutty, garlicky infusion. Peel and slice potatoes into thin rounds, slice fennel bulb finely. (Do not wash the potato slices as the starch will bind the dish together when it cooks).

Layer potatoes and fennel alternately in a baking dish with a pinch of salt and pepper between each layer. Use plenty of seasoning – more than you think you should! You should end up with seven or eight layers; finish with two layers of potatoes.

Strain the garlic cream and pour into gratin dish until potatoes are covered. Cover with foil and place in the oven at 200C for 30 minutes (adjust times depending on depth of potatoes). The foil prevents it burning.

Take foil off the gratin and press down on the potatoes firmly with a fish slice (this is key to the dish binding and not becoming a collection of potato and fennel slices floating in cream !).

Put back in the oven at 160C and check every 15 minutes, pressing down each time with the fish slice. Take out when it is brown on top and the cream mixture is absorbed. Add a little parmesan sprinkled on top and put back in the oven for a final five minutes or so.

Serve either on its own or as a delicious side dish. This dish also freezes well. We make an oven-tray full at home and freeze what we don't eat; reheat at 160C until hot through.

Gregg Wallace's Fennel and Tomato Salad

I love pure food like this. The sweetness of good tomatoes and the aniseed of fennel taste great together.

Serves 4

4 bulbs of fennel
Juice of 2 lemons
100ml (3 fluid oz) extra-virgin olive oil
10 plum tomatoes
Black pepper

Remove the fronds from the fennel and put them to one side.

Cut off the green arms and trim off the base.

Pour the lemon juice and oil into a clean bowl.

Slice the fennel very thinly and put the slices into a bowl, adding some of the oil and lemon dressing as you go. This will stop the fennel discolouring and it will slightly cook and soften the fennel.

Slice the tomatoes and arrange them on a plate. Spoon the fennel into the centre of the plate and sprinkle some of the fronds on the top.

Grind over some black pepper and serve with bread.

'Veg: The Cookbook', by Gregg Wallace, £12.99, www.octopusbooks.co.uk

Ravinder Boghal's Saffron Fish Stew

Serves 2

A generous glug of olive oil
1 red onion, thickly sliced
1 small fennel bulb, cut into chunky slices
3 garlic cloves
1 bay leaf
1 red chilli (deseeded if you don't want it too spicy), thickly sliced
1 tsp fennel seeds
250ml/8fl oz white wine
600ml/1 pint hot fish stock
500g/1lb 2oz ripe tomatoes, chopped
1 large pinch of saffron strands, pounded in a little warm water
200g/7oz any firm white-fleshed fish, cut into bite-sized chunks (I tend to use monkfish)
6-8 mussels
200g/7oz baby squid, cleaned (see page 134) and cut into rings
6 unpeeled fresh langoustines or 8 raw tiger prawns
150g/5oz peas
1 tsp chopped fennel fronds
1 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Thankfully, knocking up this stew is nowhere near as labour-intensive. I love how the milky white fish takes on the saffron's beautiful ochre stain and delicate flavour. Serving a lover a plateful of this is bound to make him or her think you're a catch.

Heat the olive oil in a large pan and then fry the onion and fennel until softened and just beginning to catch on the bottom of the pan. Add the whole, peeled garlic cloves and bay leaf and then the chilli and fennel seeds. (I leave the garlic whole here because I want a gentle background flavour rather than a full-on fierce kiss.)

Cook for another 3 minutes, then splash in the wine to deglaze the pan. Scrape off all the bits caught on the bottom of the pan and cook until the wine is reduced by half. Pour in the hot stock and add the tomatoes and saffron. Cover and cook on a low heat for about 10 minutes.

Once the stew has thickened a little, add the fish and cook for five minutes. Then add the mussels, squid and langoustines or prawns and peas, cover the pan and cook for three or four minutes, until the shellfish are pink through and the mussels have opened up.

Fish out and discard any mussels that haven't opened. Scatter the fennel fronds and parsley over the stew and serve with fresh bread.

I sometimes add potatoes to the stew, but you can pretty much try it with any vegetables you like.

'Cook in Boots' by Ravinder Bhogal is published by Harper Collins