Fennel

  (Douglas Sterling / For The Times)

It's hard to think about winter in Southern California without fennel. The stuff covers hillsides up and down the coast. You can even find it growing like a common weed in vacant lots. Well, a weed is actually the way many botanists think of it. No matter how delicious cooks may find fennel, it is classified as an invasive species and a particularly pernicious one at that.

Almost anywhere there is broken ground you'll find a fennel sprout, crowding out the native species that might otherwise have been growing there. You might be tempted to dig up a bulb for dinner, but don't bother. It takes careful cultivation to get fennel to grow with large, tender bulbs, and wild fennel tends to be tough and stringy (the seeds and fronds, though, are delicious).

How to choose: Look for fennel with fresh-looking greens on long branches. (As the fennel sits, the greens wilt and grocery managers trim them.) The bulbs should be bright white with no discolorations or soft spots.

How to store: Keep fennel in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed plastic bag. You may need to double-bag in order to cover the fronds.

How to prepare: You can slice fennel thin and use it raw and crisp in all kinds of salads (combined with blood oranges and black olives is just one wonderful possibility). Or you can cook it gently and let the flavor mellow and sweeten and the texture turn silky.