« Chinese egg noodles (Recipe: mee goreng/fried noodles) | Main | Other People's Pantries #62 »

Fennel seed (Recipe: potato and swordfish tortino)

Fennel seed

If you grew up in Rhode Island, or spend your summers on the beaches here, you know certain things about food.

You know about stuffies and doughboys, jonnycakes and dynamites. You know a coffee cabinet from a kitchen cabinet. You know that an Awful Awful® isn't awful at all.

And you know pizza sausage, the kind of Italian sausage crumbled onto pizzas everywhere around here, the kind of sausage that gets its traditional flavor from fennel seed.

You might not know, though it is true, that Italian-sausage manufacturers are the major end users for most of the world supply of fennel seed.

Thank goodness they save some for the rest of us.

Fennel seed is not the seed of the plant that gives us fennel bulbs. Though both are members of the parsley family, fennel seed is actually the dried fruit of the sweet garden fennel that I plant in my herb garden every year; the bulb we enjoy as a vegetable comes from Florence fennel. Two different varieties, two different parts of the plant used in cooking.

The most potent part of the plant, fennel seed imparts a licorice-like flavor, and dry-roasting the seed brings out its sweetness. The best quality seeds are a greenish-yellow color (which mine are, though the photo doesn't show their true greenness); they'll keep for up to two years if stored in an airtight container, and like all spices lose some of their zing when ground.

Popular in Mediterranean cuisines, fennel seed also is one of the five components of Chinese five-spice powder, and of the Indian five-spice mixture, panch phoron. It combines well with beets, tomatoes, fish, beans and lentils, and potatoes. In Iraq, it's used to flavor breads; in Alsace, sauerkraut.

In ancient times, people believed that fennel could improve eyesight, encourage weight loss, and discourage evil spirits. According to one source, in the time of Britain's King Edward I, the royal household consumed more than eight pounds of fennel seed every month, though how they used it is a bit of a mystery.

It's no mystery how to use fennel seed to great acclaim in your own kitchen; try hazelnut, fig, fennel seed and rosemary bread, anise and fennel seed carrot soup, cranberry-orange sorbet, channa dal, fennel scented black-eyed peas and wild greens, grape foccacia, and, of course, sausage pizza made with pizza sausage, in true Rhode Island style.

Potato and swordfish tortino

Potato and swordfish tortino

Another wonderful dish adapted from Faith Heller Willinger's Adventures of an Italian Food Lover, it's the perfect centerpiece for a dinner party, especially when baked, like ours, in a paella pan. The original recipe calls for sardines, mackerel, or other strong-flavored small fish, but swordfish, tuna and halibut work beautifully. Serves 6.


1-1/2 pounds Yukon Gold or red skinned potatoes
1/2-1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Sea salt and fresh black pepper
1 dried chile pepper, minced
2 heaping tsp dried (but not old) oregano
1 Tbsp lemon zest
1 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 cup tomato pulp (we used canned tomatoes)
1 lb swordfish (or halibut or tuna), sliced in half horizontally to make fillets less than 1/2-inch thick
2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
1/3 cup unflavored bread crumbs


Slice the potatoes on a mandoline, or by hand, 1/4-inch thick. In a large nonstick frying pan, film the bottom with oil, and sauté the potatoes in batches until lightly browned but not crisp. Place cooked potatoes in a bowl, and toss gently with the garlic, parsley, salt and pepper, and a bit of the minced chile pepper, plus 1/4 cup of the remaining olive oil. Place in a paella pan or large roasting pan, in a single layer if possible.

Mince 1 heaping teaspoon of the oregano with the lemon zest and fennel seeds. Sprinkle over the potatoes. Scatter half the tomato pulp over the potatoes. Place a layer of fish over the potatoes to completely cover. Season with salt, pepper, the remaining chile pepper, oregano, parsley, and the basil, and scatter with the remaining tomato pulp. Top with the bread crumbs and drizzle with olive oil. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the tortino for 10-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, until the bread crumbs are browned and the fish is cooked through. Serve hot or at room temperature.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
Vegetable medley with five-spice dip
Tandoori spiced grilled lamb
Mediterranean red snapper
Egg curry
Stuffed cabbage

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


I love fennel seeds. It's one of those spices that played a huge role in my life while growing up. When ever we were not feeling well, had tummy aches etc. My mother would a tea with fennel seeds. Now, I do the same with Soeren. It's been his drink since he was a baby and even today when he is feeling down he will come and ask for some fennel seed tea! Love the fish!

I love this recipe of yours. Will bookmark it to try it out. :)

Btw: saw your blog on facebook - cool. I'm on it too.

Oh, I can totally get into this dish with sardines or mackerel too! I adore all things anise-like!

Hi, I am Tennen-Perman,E-mail from Japan.
I visited your site sometimes so far.
You have a cool site.
I linked your site in my blog.
I administer a blog talking about cooking.
Please link to my site in your ones if you like it.

this makes my mouth water just reading about it, so many simple things combined so well!!

I must say I don't use fennel very often, but after reading this post I plan to include it in my recipes. Thanks so much for the great info!

That dish looks wonderful. And, fennel seed is my favorite seasoning. I just got some pure fennel powder and am anxious to try it.

Ho! This is going on my menu plan for our next out of town guest! Love the make ahead aspect on this one.
Fennel seed, well it's had a constant place on our table for a long time. I hadn't realized there were two plants. Mine seeds itself constantly everywhere.

Lydia - Fish is hard to come by in these parts (especially those North Atlantic breeds) and your tortino is making my mouth water. It just won't be the same with canned tuna, but I may have to give it a try. I love fennel seed (here it is called sweet herb) and am using it next weekend in the vinaigrette for a Mexican salad of tomatoes, sweet onions, and chayote.

I'll bet King Edward's household was using the fennel for confits. Not exactly "candied," but something you could eat at the end of the meal. I forget why, but I'm sure it had to do with the humours or "closing the stomach" (which is why certain foods were traditionally served last in those days). You often find them in a little bowl near the checkout or exit of modern Indian restaurants.

I also love it with sausage, a little tomatoe paste and a bunch of red wine cooked down to a sauce over pasta. And if you're feeling fancy stir a beaten egg and some parmesan through the whole thing while it's still hot.

this looks great... I don't cook with fennel nearly enough! :)

Fennel is kind of a magical seed in my view. And I didn't know it was used in Chinese Five Spice.

My mouth is watering! Your pictures are beautiful!

I love fennel seed too. And sausage pizzas!
I like the Middle Eastern candy coated ones. (fennel seeds, not pizzas!)
This might be a dumb question.. but is there a difference between fennel seed and anise seed? They look the same in the jars.

Meeta, I've heard that fennel tea is good for digestion, though I've never tried it. (And oh boy, this fish is delicious!)

Cooking Ninja, hope you like it. This is a great dish for entertaining.

Peter, the sardines would be a bit strong for my taste, but I think would hold their own with the lemon-fennel-tomato seasonings. Try it, and let me know.

Tennen, welcome.

Bev, this was really delicious with swordfish, though I think I'd try it with our local cod, too.

Treehouse Chef, I don't use fennel much, either, but every time I do, I remember how much I like it!

Joan, please let me know what you do with your fennel powder. Someone gave me some as a gift and I haven't used it yet.

MyKitchen, for some reason nothing self-seeds in my garden, I guess because we have a thick layer of mulch over everything. Sometimes I find the bronze fennel has self-seeded, but it turns up in the oddest corners of the garden!

Peter, how about trying it with something other than fish -- chicken paillards might be delicious.

Sandra, I'll bet you're right. I've often taken a pinch from the bowl on the way out after an Indian meal, too.

Laura, my mouth is watering. It's amazing how a bit of spice can really elevate a few simple ingredients.

Ginny, try this dish. You will love it, I promise.

TW, I was surprised to learn that about fennel, too. It feels wrong, somehow; I always think of fennel as a strictly Mediterranean spice, though of course it's not.

Bridget, thank you. I'm always trying to improve my photography.

Natashya, candy coated fennel seeds? I've never had them! Anise and fennel are related, but from different plants.

So many fennel facts I did not know, and yes, my favorite use of fennel seed is in sweet Italian sausage (as corny as that sounds).

But what really has my curiosity piqued, is what, exactly, is Awful Awful and why isn't it so awful? Do tell.

Lydia, The candy coated fennel seeds seem to be pretty popular here in LA, never tried them mostly because I associate fennel with meat.
I go on these ingredient trips from time to time and Fennel was the spice du jour for quite a bit. Poor spice was finding itself in just about every meat and of course sea food.
I am always looking for fish recipes so thanks for this one.

Fennel is one of my favorite but sausage is my favorite use for it. Awesome post and I am now curious about the candy coated ones.

This dish sounds amazing, I love all the flavors! Looks like I need to get out my paella pan and run down to the grocery store.

This recipe looks so good! I've never had anything like it. I love your choice of swordfish...one of my favorite.

That looks absolutely delicious. The fennel's a nice touch. We have had candy coated (and chocolate coated) fennel. It's tasty!

I really love fennel, but now I must know what Awful Awful is. Never heard of that!

Tell you a secret, I can never tell the difference between fennel seeds and cumin seeds. They look the same to me. ;)

The day I discovered hot fennel sausage in San Diego's Little Italy, I neared cried tears of joy! You are so right. Fennel sausage is right up there with Awful Awfuls. But I gotta ask ya, Lydia, what's a dynamite?

Sandie, Kalyn: an Awful Awful is like a milkshake, made with milk, syrup and ice milk. It's a trademarked concoction made by Newport Creamery, which is a chain of ice cream shops here in Rhode Island.

Kim, fennel is great with fish and with vegetables, too. I'll have to look for the candied fennel seeds -- never tried them.

Jeff, do you make your own sausage?

Jason, the paella pan was a last-minute inspiration, because I didn't have another large shallow pan. But I think it gave a nice crispness to the potatoes and I'll definitely use it again.

Carrie, I love swordfish, too, pretty much any way you cook it.

Duo Dishes, chocolate-covered fennel? Now I really will have to track that down!

Rasa Malaysia, they do look similar, but have a completely different aroma. Both get sweeter when toasted, too.

Susan, a dynamite is like a Sloppy Joe -- spicy meat sauce served on a torpedo (grinder) roll. Every year in Woonsocket there's a big Dynamite Festival; next one, I'm definitely going.

Boy the royals sure do eat a lot of fennel.

Peabody, strange, isn't it....

It is delicious recipe. Fennel seeds are very common, it is commonly found in kitchen. It adds flavours to dishes. It has many health benefits like, it act as mouth freshener, women who face irregularities in their periods felt effective cure by fennel seeds, it provides relief to strained eyes, gives soft and conditioned locks, healthy skin etc.

Very informative post- thank you!

A year or so ago a friend brought me a plant as a housewarming gift. It was a little scrawny thing and she said, "it's dill." I planted it in my window box and it grew like the proverbial weed. I crushed a bit of the ferny leaves between my finders one day and sniffed. "this doesn't smell like pickles," I thought. I showed it to a neighbor and he said, "That's fennel." Not knowing what to do with it, I just ignored it. This year it popped up all over the area beneath my window box and grew to 4 feet high! I pinched a couple of the seeds that appeared after the blossoms died off. Sweet and delicious! Like tiny licorice candies! I put it in oatmeal and sprinkle it on other cereal. I put several in a container of sugar and use that in my tea. I bake it in cakes and sprinkle it on frostings. Now I'll try it on fish! Thank you.

OMG....I'm a little late to the party, but I just made this dish, and its one of the best things I've ever had! The only thing i did different was to use some leftover slow-roasted grape tomato halves instead of the fresh tomato....which probably keeps any watery tendency down...


Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.