PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 May, 2004, 12:00am

Fennel is a pretty plant, with long, delicate, feathery stalks that resemble dill. There are two main varieties of fennel plants: one produces the thick bulb (pictured) and the other doesn't. Besides the bulb and stalks, fennel is also harvested for its small seeds and pollen, which is flavour-of-the-month with many chefs.

All forms of fennel have a subtle, anise-like flavour, although the taste is most intense in the seeds. The bulb and stalks are eaten raw or cooked, the seeds are crushed or left whole to flavour meat, and the pollen is used in tiny quantities mixed with other ingredients to use as a rub or marinade.

Although most people think of fennel being used in Mediterranean cuisine (especially Italian), it's also used in many Asian cuisines. Fennel seeds are part of Chinese five-spice powder, and in Indian cuisine fennel seeds are toasted, ground and used in spice mixtures and the whole seeds are chewed after a meal to sweeten the breath.

The fennel bulb is usually sold with the stalks removed or trimmed short. The bulb is the most versatile part of the plant. Raw fennel bulb is wonderful sliced and tossed with Gorgonzola or Roquefort cheese, orange slices and candied walnuts. Drizzle with olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice. The simplest way to cook fennel is to cut it into slices, brush with olive oil and grill on the barbeque. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with lemon juice.

When fennel bulb is cooked long and slow the sweetness intensifies and the anise flavour becomes more subtle. The flavour goes well with cream and seafood. Slice fennel bulbs and cook with unsalted butter until tender. Add some cream and simmer until reduced, then season with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a pan and cook fish fillets, skin-side down until the skin is crisp. Season with salt and pepper then serve the fish on a bed of cooked fennel.

Fennel bulb is also good in a gratin and makes a superb side dish for roasted chicken. Slice potatoes and blanch

briefly. Thinly slice fennel bulbs, layer the potatoes and fennel in a baking dish and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat cream and sliced garlic in a saucepan and let it simmer for a few minutes. Pour the cream over the potatoes and fennel and sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese. Bake in a pre-heated 180-degrees Celsius oven for 45 minutes to one hour, or until the cream is thick, the vegetables are tender and the gratin is brown and bubbling.