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Baby fennel is an immature type of fennel, a vegetable often used to garnish both sweet and savory dishes. The herb originated from the Mediterranean region, but modern day cultivators from around the world can grow this plant if enough sun and water are available. Both the bulbs and leaves of the baby fennel plant are edible and contain a fair amount of vitamins and minerals.
Foeniculum vulgare, the scientific name for fennel, is actually part of the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family. This family of plants includes parsley, anise, and dill, among other herbs and vegetables. Many compare the taste of anise with that of mature fennel and baby fennel. Dill leaves and fennel leaves have a notably similar appearance but a markedly different taste.
Most conditions and climates are suitable for this plant, but it thrives best in coastal soils that receive plenty of direct sunlight. Even though baby fennel originated along the Mediterranean coast, it now grows naturally in dry soils near seas and rivers throughout the world. Cultivators can usually keep a fennel plant growing year-round in any region, however, as long as the plant receives enough sunlight and the soil is not too dense, clay-like, or wet.
The baby fennel bulb has a slightly sweet, slightly spicy flavor while the leaves of the plant have a stronger taste comparable to licorice. Fennel leaves are often used for seasoning salads, soups, and cooked vegetables. Some cooks also use the leaves to flavor poultry and fish, but few use it for meats like pork or beef. The seeds of the plant, which are sweet like the bulbs, are often used in Italian sausage and rye bread.
Bulbs can be eaten raw or cooked. A chef may bake, boil, or steam the bulbs, season them with pepper or other spices, and serve the cooked vegetable as a side dish. Some cooks may even add finely chopped bulbs into stir-fries, stews, or other dishes consisting of multiple vegetables. Baby fennel should be used fresh whenever possible, though, since the flavor vanishes once the plant dries out. An individual can store freshly harvested fennel, placed in an airtight plastic bag or plastic wrap, in the coldest part of the refrigerator for four or five days maximum.
Baby fennel is a low-fat, low-calorie vegetable. A cup of chopped fennel only contains roughly 30 calories. The vegetable also provides noteworthy amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, niacin and potassium, as well as small amounts of dietary fiber, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, and phosphorus.