It never fails. When I try to breeze through the supermarket checkout lane, the head of fennel sticking out of the top of the shopping cart attracts attention. Other shoppers want to know what it is and how to cook it. And I often need to identify for the cashier this licorice-flavored vegetable that looks a little bit like Bozo the Clown.

Only in the past few years has this Mediterranean vegetable become a staple in our produce departments. I first encountered it in Sicily, where raw slices were offered as a nibble, a digestif, between courses. This was a fitting introduction, before I met other fennel dishes. It's now a staple in my repertoire.

Fresh raw fennel is refreshing. With its distinct licorice taste and faint sweetness, it seems to cleanse both palate and breath. Fennel's licorice crunch pairs nicely with a mustard-laced vinaigrette or with citrus for a salad to brighten cold-weather meals. When cooked, fennel gives a more subtle licorice note to a dish. Braising renders fennel very tender and slightly sweet; the braising liquid can be wine, broth or (when it's Fat City time) cream.

(Other forms of fennel include fennel seed, which is the identifying flavor in many Italian sausages and is also used in baked goods; the feathery fronds, which can be used as a seasoning herb; and fennel pollen, which is a potent ingredient used to season pork, poultry, salad dressings and side dishes.)

A whole head of fennel with its feathery greens, needs to be dismantled before using. Many parts of fennel are edible, but they must be pruned for use.

Place the flat side of the fennel against the cutting board, and with a sharp chef's knife decapitate the green celery-like stalks and fronds. Set these aside if you plan to use them as a seasoning. (I like to use the fronds, snipped, as garnish for many fennel dishes, and the stalks, though woody, can add good anise flavor to broth.)

The denuded fennel bulb might not look like much, but a medium bulb will yield about 4 cups of sliced fennel -- plenty for a salad, saute or soup. You may find small (about 8 ounces), medium (about 11 to 12 ounces) and large (about a pound) bulbs of fennel at the market. These recipes were developed using medium-size bulbs, about 3/4 pound with the stalks trimmed off.

Now we're at the heart of this snowy white, fragrant plant -- the bulb. Slice 1/4 to 1/2 inch off its bottom and trim any brown spots from its outer flesh. Rinse the bulb with cold water and pat dry. Standing it upright, slice the bulb in half lengthwise. With a sharp paring knife, carefully cut out the tough core from each half. You'll be cutting out a three-sided, almost pyramid-shaped piece.

For most of these recipes, turn the bulb half on its flat side and thinly slice, either with or across the grain. Very thinly sliced fennel is traditional for a salad. If you have a mandoline, you might want to use it for the fennel salads here. However, if you're like me and are a bit uneasy with this wickedly sharp and precise chef's tool, slicing by hand with a sharp knife is fine.

The following dishes show the range of fennel's talents -- from crisp, refreshing and lean to indulgently comforting.

Roasted Fennel and White Bean Soup

(8 first-course or 4 main-course servings)

The rich, slightly sweet flavors of roasted fennel and garlic are the backbone of this subtly flavored soup. The fennel flavor is accentuated by a small shot of Pernod. Small servings of this rich soup, garnished with fennel fronds, make an elegant first course. Slightly larger servings, sprinkled generously with walnuts and blue cheese, make a lovely entree.

1 bulb fennel, trimmed, halved, cored and sliced 1/4 inch thick (reserve a few fronds for garnish)

4 cloves garlic, unpeeled

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 white onion, peeled and sliced

14-ounce can white beans, drained

3 cups chicken stock or broth

1/2 cup half-and-half

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

2 tablespoons Pernod or other anise-flavored liqueur

1/4 cup toasted* walnuts, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

On a rimmed baking sheet, spread the fennel and garlic in a single layer. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the oil and toss to combine. Roast, stirring occasionally, until the fennel is tender and golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a deep saucepan over medium-low heat, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Add the onion and saute until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the beans and stock or broth, stir to combine and remove from the heat.

Squeeze the roasted garlic from its peel into the saucepan. Add the roasted fennel. Return the pan to medium-high heat and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer gently until the fennel is very tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat; set aside to cool for at least 10 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to a food processor or blender (may need to work in batches) and puree until smooth. Return the soup to the pan and place over low heat, stirring occasionally, just until warmed through. Add the half-and-half and salt and pepper to taste. Stir to combine. Stir in the Pernod. Taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly.

To serve, place a few toasted walnuts in the bottom of each bowl. Ladle the hot soup into the bowl and sprinkle the cheese and reserved snipped fennel fronds over the top.

* NOTE: To toast nuts, spread them on a baking sheet and place them in a 350-degree oven. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, shaking occasionally. Watch carefully because nuts will burn quickly.

Per serving (based on 8): 158 calories, 7 gm protein, 17 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, 7 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 112 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber

Fennel Mashed Potatoes

(6 to 8 servings)

This dish is a must on my Thanksgiving table. The subtle flavor of the fennel makes these mashed potatoes one-of-a-kind. First the fennel is braised in cream, then pureed and stirred into buttered mashed potatoes.

3 pounds golden potatoes, peeled and cut into about 1-inch dice

1 bulb fennel, trimmed, halved, cored and coarsely chopped

11/2 cups half-and-half

4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes, reduce the heat to medium and cook until tender, about 20 minutes depending on the size of the potatoes. Drain and return to the pot. Cover to keep warm.

While the potatoes are cooking, in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the fennel and half-and-half to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer gently until tender, about 25 minutes. Remove from the heat to cool for at least 10 minutes. (May cover and refrigerate for several hours.)

Transfer the fennel mixture to a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. (May need to work in batches.) Set aside.

Using a potato masher or a mixer, mash the potatoes until just slightly chunky. Add the pureed fennel and butter and mix until completely incorporated and the desired consistency. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

Per serving (based on 8): 213 calories, 3 gm protein, 36 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 17 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 78 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber

Pasta With Fennel and Bacon

(4 servings)

The slightly smoky flavor of bacon complements the sweetness of the fennel.

8 ounces rigatoni or penne pasta

6 slices bacon, diced

2 tablespoons olive oil (optional)

1 bulb fennel, trimmed, halved, cored and thinly sliced (reserve a few fronds for garnish)

2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1/2 cup chicken stock or broth

Zest from 1 lemon

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain the pasta and return it to the stockpot.

While the pasta is cooking, place the bacon in a large, preferably nonstick, skillet over medium-low heat and cook, turning as necessary, until the bacon renders its fat and is cooked through but not crisp. Transfer the bacon to a plate lined with a paper towel; set aside.

Remove all but 2 tablespoons of bacon drippings from the pan (or remove all of the drippings and add 2 tablespoons olive oil). Return the skillet to medium-low heat. Add the fennel and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fennel is well coated and starts to wilt, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the stock, cover and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook until the fennel is tender, about 5 minutes. Remove and discard the garlic.

Uncover the skillet and add the reserved bacon, cooked pasta, lemon zest, reserved snipped fennel fronds and salt and pepper to taste. Toss gently to combine. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 320 calories, 11 gm protein, 47 gm carbohydrates, 9 gm fat, 9 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 269 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber

Fennel and Sausage Saute

(4 servings)

This straightforward saute is best described as a sort of elegant take on a hero sandwich (minus the bread). I sometimes mix red, yellow and green bell peppers for a more colorful effect.

Serve alongside, not on top of, a loaf of hearty Italian bread with a simple tossed green salad.

1 pound sweet or hot Italian sausage, crumbled

About 1 tablespoon olive oil

1 bulb fennel, trimmed, halved, cored and thinly sliced

1 red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced

1/2 white onion, thinly sliced into half moons

1/2 cup dry white wine

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat, cook the sausage until browned but not cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel; set aside.

Remove and discard drippings from the pan. Return the skillet to medium heat, add the oil and heat. Add the fennel, bell pepper and onion and cook, stirring almost constantly, until slightly softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the wine, increase the heat to medium-high and cook, using a wooden spoon to stir and scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the skillet, for 2 minutes. Return the sausage to the skillet and cook until cooked through. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Per serving: 469 calories, 17 gm protein, 7 gm carbohydrates, 39 gm fat, 86 mg cholesterol, 13 gm saturated fat, 931 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

Fennel, Hazelnut and

Blue Cheese Salad

(4 servings)

This is one of those salads that make a weeknight meal something memorable. I like to serve it with grilled or roast meats or poultry.

1 bulb fennel, trimmed, halved, cored and thinly sliced (reserve a few fronds for garnish)

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Sugar to taste

1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 tablespoons hazelnuts or walnut halves, toasted* and coarsely chopped

4 tablespoons crumbled blue cheese

Place the fennel in a large bowl; set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice and salt, pepper and sugar to taste. Whisking constantly, slowly add first the mustard, then the oil, adding the oil in a steady stream. Taste and adjust the seasonings accordingly.

Pour the vinaigrette over the fennel and toss to combine.

To serve, divide the salad evenly among 4 plates and sprinkle each with hazelnuts, cheese and the reserved snipped fennel fronds. Serve immediately.

* NOTE: To toast nuts, spread them on a baking sheet and place them in a 350-degree oven. Bake 8 to 10 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally. Watch carefully because nuts will burn quickly.

Per serving: 252 calories, 4 gm protein, 7 gm carbohydrates, 24 gm fat, 6 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 225 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber