In the course of clearing out the summer plants from the garden, we took out our remaining fennel plants (one of which we had cut already in order to dry the feathery leaves to be used later - apparently if brewed as tea it is good for the digestion!), which happened to be neighboring the parsnips. Much to our surprise, the tap root of the fennel plant was quite large and looked nearly identical to a parsnip! So much so in fact that we had to take a good look and make sure it was indeed attached to a fennel plant. Which brings me to the challenge part of the post... Take a look at the photo below, which is a lineup of a mixture of fennel roots and parsnips, and see if you can tell the difference! I'll have to think of some prize to award anyone who correctly identifies all of them in the comments below (unless of course the difficulty was mine and you all get them all right). :)
Anyway, this resemblance made us rather curious if indeed this enlarged tap root was edible. After some online searching, the only thing that was clear was that there is a lot of confusion surrounding this poor plant, about what should be called root, bulb, stem, etc (not to mention between the herb fennel and the vegetable fennel). I did finally find one forum in which a few different people successfully ate it without dying or suffering any ill side effects, so we decided to give it a shot.
The idea was to make a soup, using other root vegetables as well as the small fennel 'bulbs' we had (they had been developing nicely, then when we came back from vacation this summer we found they had gone tall and weedy instead of developing the proper enlarged base that makes the vegetable fennel). However, we were also curious what it tasted like on its own, so I decided to dice it up and boil it until tender. The chunks we sampled weren't bad, but to be honest, didn't actually taste of much; they were just a bit starchy like a potato, but not as tasty. So considering these results and at the suggestion of a friend (thanks for the idea Lizzie!), I simply used a handheld blender to whiz up the chunks in the water they boiled in to use to thicken the soup.
The soup was made with the small fennel bulbs, Savoy cabbage, parsnip, carrots and a beet from our garden, potatoes, onions and white beans. Start by sautéeing the onions in a large pan, then add the other vegetables chopped along with some of the fennel tops and cover with chicken stock. Add the fennel root thickener & a few splashes of worcester sauce, season, and leave to simmer until everything is tender.
Serve as-is, or topped with a bit of fresh cream and/or fresh herbs or chopped chives. If you're not a big fan of that anise flavor, don't worry, this soup was actually very light and subtle, not overpowering on that front at all. We also used quite a bit of cabbage, and so made the soup in our large stockpot to have room for it all. It actually lasted us nearly a whole week, which considering it was only for the price of a few onions, potatoes and a can of beans was quite a good deal!