THE OTHER day, when I was triumphantly packing the first fennel of to season into my basket, at least three fellow shoppers asked what it was that I was buying and what on earth was I going to do with it.

Florence fennel (the kind we eat, as opposed to the common fennel, which is an herb) has just come onto the market and will be available until perhaps the beginning of February. Then in the spring, if we are lucky, there will be another short spurt of fennel. After that we will have to wait until next October for the new crop.

Fennel, which somewhat resembles celery, has a swollen bulb-like base surmounted by thickish stalks and topped by dissected leaves that look like dill. The bulbs, for which the plant is primarily grown, can measure from 3 to 6 inches in overall length. I look for medium-sizd, firm white bulbs without blemishes.

Fennel leaves can be chopped and sprinkled into green salads, mixed into stuffings for fish or used to garnish fennel dishes. The stalks, except for the most tender, are stringy and not particularly edible. However, I have a friend who makes a bed of these along with whatever leaves are left over and cooks a leg of lamb on the fennel. It is a good idea to moisten the stalks with water and to check halfway through the cooking so they don't burn.

The bulbs can be sliced and the fennel eaten raw in salad or munched like celery, but I prefer fennel cooked to accompany either lamb, pork, or goose. Should the anise flavor be too dulled during cooking, a bit of pernod will perk it up. Although my husband cannot understand my weakness for things licorice, he thinks fennel is a good vegetable. I think it is sensational.

For some reason, Giant and Safeway rarely carry fennel. However, it can be found at the Bethesda Avenue Coop, Memco, Straight From the Crate, Magruders, Hudson Brothers and the Chevy Chase Lake Supermarket. FENNEL TIMBALES (8 to 12 servings) 2 fennel bulbs Salt 4 tablespoons shallots or green onions, minced 4 tablespoons butter 1 3/4 cups very dry bread crumbs, preferably homemade 1 cup milk 4 eggs 1/2 cup grated Parmesan 1/3 cup heavy cream Black pepper Fresh dill or dried dill weed, to taste Butter and bread crumbs for 12 (4 ounce) souffle dishes

Trim and quarter the fennel. Save the tender stems. Place the pieces into boiling water, add salt to taste and simmer about 20 minutes until tender. iDrain, refresh under cold running water and squeeze by handfuls to get rid of as much moisture as possible. Chop fine in processor or by hand.

Saute the minced shallots or green onions in butter until they are soft but not brown, add the chopped fennel and cook over low heat for about 15 minutes until remaining moisture is evaporated.

Soak the bread crumbs in the milk until all the milk is absorbed. Beat eggs with a fork and combine them with the bread crumbs, fennel, Parmesan and cream. Season highly with salt, pepper, and dill.

Butter the molds, line the bottoms with buttered waxed paper, buttered side up, and sprinkle with bread crumbs. Fill the molds with the fennel mixture and place them in a shallow roasting pan. Pour boiling water into the pan to come a third of the way up the sides of the molds. Set the pan into a preheated 375 degree onion for 30 minutes, or until the mixture is firm and has drawn away from the sides. Unmold, peel off the paper and serve. f BRAISED FENNEL IN OLIVE OIL (4 servings) 2 fennel bulbs 1/3 cup olive oil 1 cup chicken broth Water Salt 1 tablespoon pernod (optional)

Trim the fennel, but save the tender stems. Cut the leaves vertically into slices up to 1/2 inch thick. Wash. Put the sliced fennel and olive oil into a saute pan or other broad pan. Add the chicken broth and enough water to cover just barely. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat for 25 minutes or until tender. If liquid remains in the pan, pour it off and boil it down in another saucepan. Return the reduced liquid to the fennel pan. Season with salt and add the tablespoon of pernod to deepen the fennel's flavor. BAKED FENNEL WITH PARMESON (6 to 8 servings) 4 fennel bulbs 4 tablespoons butter Black papper 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan

Trim the fennel and quarter it. Cook in salted water about 15 to 20 minutes. Start testing, however, at 10 minutes -- the fennel should be tender but the quarters should hold their shape. Drain the fennel well and turn into a gratin dish buttered with half the butter. Dot the remaining butter on the fennel, grind lots of pepper over it, and sprinkle on the cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until the cheese is golden. CREAMED FENNEL (4 servings) 2 fennel bulbs Salt and pepper to taste 4 tablespoons heavy cream 2 tablespoons butter

Trim and quarter the fennel. Save the tender stems. Cook the fennel in boiling salted water until tender, about 20 minutes.Drain. Puree the fennel in a food processor or blender and empty it into a saucepan. Bring it to a boil, add the cream and butter. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot. PASTA WITH FENNEL (4 servings) 2 heads fennel Salt 1 pound pasta 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 tablespoons butter Parmesan cheese Fennel leaves and chopped parsley

Trim and quarter the fennel, saving tender stalks. Reserve some of the feathery leaves for the garnish. Cook the fennel in a large pot of boiling salted water for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender. Remove the fennel with a slotted spoon and slice it vertically. In the same water, cook the pasta until done. Drain, add the fennel and the olive oil and butter. Sprinkle on some of the cheese along with chopped reserved fennel leaves and parsley. Serve hot with additional cheese. FENNEL SOUP (6 servings) 4 fennel bulbs 1/4 cup olive oil 6 cups chicken or beef stock Salt and pepper 1 cup heavy cream 3 tablespoons butter 1 clove garlic, sliced 1/2 cup French bread, crusts removed, cut into 1/3 inch cubes

Trim the fennel, saving tender stalks. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the fine leaves and chop them finely. Cut the fennel bulbs in half, then slice these horizontally into 1/4 inch slices. Heat the olive oil, add the fennel and cover with the stock. Add salt and pepper. Simmer until the fennel is soft and nearly falls apart.Puree in a food processor or blender. Add the cream and the chopped greens and reheat without boiling. Taste for salt and pepper. aHeat the butter in a small frying pan. Add the garlic slices and saute them until they start coloring. Remove them with a slotted spoon and discard. tAdd the bread cubes and saute until golden. Float the croutons on the hot soup.