By Anne Palumbo
Saddled with a finicky stomach since forever, I’m always on the lookout for foods that aid digestion. Probiotic-rich yogurt, high-fiber whole grains, nausea-busting ginger, constipation-relieving apples: all have easily found their way into my weekly diet.
My newest addition? Fennel. Sweet, crunchy, refreshing fennel.
While I’m no stranger to fennel and have always enjoyed its licorice-like flavor, I’ve never really eaten it on a consistent basis.
But these days, I now consume this bulbous vegetable with the feathery fronds several times a week — for the digestive benefits and so much more.
How exactly does fennel keep our digestion humming? Fennel contains a unique antispasmodic agent that relaxes the smooth muscles in our digestive tract—a soothing action that helps to reduce bloating, cramping, and flatulence. In the early 20th century, fennel was actually listed as an official drug for digestion in the U.S. National Standard Dispensatory. And limited research suggests that fennel oil may reduce colic in infants. Maybe this explains why Indian restaurants offer a bowl of candy-coated fennel seeds to customers.
Fennel also rocks with fiber: 11% of our daily needs in one cup of raw slices. Fiber-rich foods support healthy digestion by adding bulk to our stools and by helping food move through our system more easily and quickly. In other words, less constipation! High fiber intake has also been linked to a lower risk of developing heart disease and diabetes due to its ability to help lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels.
And contrary to its pale color, fennel boasts a good amount of vitamin C.
Hearts love this essential vitamin for its cell-protecting antioxidant benefits; skin loves it for its wrinkle prevention; immune systems love it for its overall boost; and eyes love it because it may delay the onset of developing cataracts, as well as slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration.
A versatile vegetable that’s as enjoyable raw as it is cooked, fennel is naturally low in fat, sodium, cholesterol and calories (only 30 per sliced cup) and a good source of potassium.
Fennel, Tomato and Feta Skillet Bake
Adapted from Cooking Light
2 fennel bulbs
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon chopped fronds
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups chopped tomatoes
4 garlic cloves, sliced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon coarse black pepper
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
4 tablespoons crumbled feta
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Trim coarse bulb bottom; then cut bulbs vertically into 8 wedges each, separating wedges along the way. Sprinkle with coriander, cumin, and a pinch of salt. Chop fennel fronds to equal 1 tablespoon; set aside.
Heat olive oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high. Add fennel wedges; cook 6 minutes until lightly browned, stirring throughout. Add garlic slices and cook 1 minute more. Add chopped tomatoes, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes (if using). Gently mix; then place entire skillet in oven for 15 minutes.
Sprinkle with crumbled feta and garnish with fronds.
Look for large, tight bulbs that are white or pale green, minus signs of splitting, bruising or spotting. The root bottom should have little browning. To store: trim fronds (if still on) to two inches above the bulb, wrap loosely in a plastic bag, and place in fridge for up to 5 days. In season now, fennel can be found at local farmer’s markets.
Anne Palumbo is a lifestyle columnist, food guru, and seasoned cook, who has perfected the art of preparing nutritious, calorie-conscious dishes. She is hungry for your questions and comments about SmartBites, so be in touch with Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org.