Finocchi gratinati (Gratinéed Fennel)

Finocchi gratinati (Gratinéed Fennel)

In contorno by Frank Fariello30 Comments

 

I love fennel. It may, in fact, be my favorite winter vegetable. Personally, I mostly like fennel eaten raw, either dipped in bagna cauda or in some seasoned olive oil as part of a pinzimonio, or—best of all—just as is, as ‘dessert’. Its refreshing anise taste and crisp texture seems to act as a kind of natural digestivo after a heavy meal.
 
But fennel also makes a delightful contorno or vegetarian secondo. Cooking brings out its mellow sweetness and intensifies its flavorm and turns its crispness into velvety tenderness. Fennel can cook along with a main ingredient, as in our recent post on pesce al forno con finocchi, or it can be made on its own. One classic method is to braise it first and then gratinée it in a hot oven or under the broiler until golden brown, either with or without béchamel sauce. While it is probably more common to see this dish made with béchamel, I prefer to top the fennel just with abundant grated parmesan cheese and perhaps a few dabs of butter. It’s a bit lighter and, to my mind, brings out the taste of the fennel more assertively. Made with béchamel, on the other hand, it’s rich enough to serve as a vegetarian second course.
 
Ingredients (to serve 4 as a contorno or 2 as a vegetarian main course)
 
For the braising:
4 fennel bulbs
Enough water (or broth), or enough to come about 1 cm (1/2 inch) up the side of your pan
50g (2 oz.) butter, cut into pieces
Salt, q.b.
 
For the gratinée:
100g (4 oz.) parmesan cheese
A few dabs of butter (optional)
Breadcrumbs (optional)
250ml (1 cup) (or more) of béchamel sauce (optional)
 
Directions
 
Cut the stalks and fronds off the fennel bulbs, then cut the trimmed bulbs in slices or, if you prefer, into thinnish wedges. Add the fennel to a large sauté pan, large enough to hold them in one or two layers, and then add the water (or broth) and butter.
 
 
Cover the pan and simmer the fennel for 15-20 minutes (a bit more if cut into wedges) until the fennel is very tender and reduced in size, and the liquid has almost evaporated. If the fennel cooks before the liquid has evaporated, uncover and cook off the excess over a high flame. Let the fennel cool.
 
 
Arrange the fennel neatly in a greased gratin dish, in alternating layers of fennel and grated cheese (and bechamel if using), ending with cheese. (Add any remaining liquid in the pan to the dish just before adding the final layer of béchamel and cheese.) Top with dabs of butter and a dusting of breadcrumbs, if you like.
 
Ready for the oven—just cheese for me, please.
Bake the dish in a hot oven (200°C/400°F) for about 15-20 minutes, until the top has formed a nice golden crust. (If you like a crustier top, you can run the dish under the broiler briefly until it has reached the stage you like, but be careful not to let it burn!)
 
 
Let the dish cool for a few minutes, then serve.
 
NOTES: There are two types of fennel: one that is round and bulbous, sometimes referred to as the ‘male’ and a type that is more slender and oval, sometime called the ‘female’. I’ve also heard them called the opposite—but it does not really matter as, in fact, the distinction has no biological basis.
 
A ‘female’ fennel at top, a ‘male’ below
Personally, I prefer the bulbous kind, which some people say has better texture for eating raw, but both are fine for cooking. (For some reason, my local supermarket stocks the slender kind almost exclusively, with the odd bulbous fennel thrown in for good measure…)
 
 
By the way, I don’t throw out the stems and fronds. The fronds can be chopped and added to soups or salads, to lend a pleasant, slightly anice-y flavor akin to dill. They are also essential in making pasta con le sarde if you can’t find wild fennel (ie, most of us outside Italy). The stalks are quite fibrous, but, hardcore fennel lover that I am, I like to chew on them while I’m cooking as a kind of snack and spit out any inedible fibers. Sort of gross, I know, but don’t think the less of me, please…
Frank FarielloFinocchi gratinati (Gratinéed Fennel)

Comments

  1. Thom

    I was inspired by your post, and got round to trying this the other night. Turned out beautifully, my new favourite fennel treat! Tom – Bath, UK.

  2. Thom

    I was inspired by your post, and got round to trying this the other night. Turned out beautifully, my new favourite fennel treat! Tom – Bath, UK.

  3. Frank

    I like the way fennel marries with fish as well. And, yes, there are some people who don't care for fennel. That anise taste is one you either love or hate, I guess!

  4. Frank

    They can be hard to find especially in areas where there isn't a large Italian-American community. Worth seeking out, though!

  5. Simona

    Finishing off a meal with a wedge of raw fennel is a rooted tradition in my family. My mother would also make a simple salad of fennel cut into bite-sized pieces. I was an adult when I tasted gratineed fennel and my friend would make it like you, without bechamel sauce. I honestly had never seen the kind of fennel you describe as slender and had not heard about the gender distinction. At the farmers' market, I only see this kind, unfortunately. Yes, in Italy fennel is tastier and tenderer. There is nothing gross about munching on the stalks. My favorite part is the core.

  6. Frank

    I agree that the fennel is Italy is a bit different—a bit tastier as I remember, but that's generally true of most fruits and vegetables. And a bit stringier, like the celery. Adding absinthe is an interesting idea! I can see how it would really boost the flavor. I happen to have a bottle of absinthe in my bar so I'll have to try that soon.

  7. lostpastremembered

    honestly, I don't know if it my absolute favorite but certainly one of them and not used nearly enough. It's so refreshing. I've taken to adding a little absinthe to the mix and love it…can't wait to try this one. Isn't the fennel a little different in Italy? It seems so but that could just be me.

  8. Vicki Bensinger

    Your gratin sounds delicious layered with cheese and breadcrumbs. I think Panko would be equally as good.

    I like using a whole fennel to roast a whole salmon, gutted then stuffed with lemon and fennel fronds on a bed of thinly sliced fennel surrounded by white wine to keep moist while cooking.

    Unfortunately I don't use it often since my husband isn't fond of it.

  9. Greg

    I am going to have to try this. I have only had fennel once before, but I liked it. It just doesn't seem to be big around here, not in my usual grocery store.

  10. Frank

    Wow! What a confession… ;=) It's not a taste everyone likes but I love it. Braising really does bring out its flavor nicely.

  11. Silvie

    I'm doing my salmon lasagna (bechamel/fish stock/thinly sliced sockeye) for guests this wednesday. The recipe calls for a sprinkling of fennel seed over the bechamel. I'm now going to add in a layer of braised fennel – thanks this is really timely.

  12. Claudia

    You know I do have a mental picture of you with a fennel frond in your mouth, stirring on the stove. Fun to read this now – I have fennel braising for a pork chop dinner and am in heaven. Next week gratin! Interesting – that in MN – I can only get the bulbous little chubby guys.

  13. Ciao Chow Linda

    Frank – I'm with you on this being my favorite winter veggie. and I make it the same way and love it. Served in those dishes, it's unbeatable.

  14. Miriam

    You know I only tried fennel recently? I used it in a soup and I found the flavor… intriguing. I must try to braise it…

Your comments are always welcome!