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. One classic fennel side dish is finocchi gratinati or fennel gratin.
The 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. A fennel gratin made with béchamel, on the other hand, is rich enough to serve as a vegetarian second course.
Serves 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 gratin:
- 100g (4 oz.) parmesan cheese
- A few dabs of butter (optional)
- Breadcrumbs (optional)
- 250ml (1 cup) (or more) of béchamel sauce (optional)
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 your fennel gratin cool for a few minutes, then serve.
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.
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…