Fennel is a very versatile vegetable. It can be eaten raw–it’s wonderful simply shaved over a mixed green salad. It can be diced and put in a stew or soup–I love to put it in my zuppa di pesce, which I make with mixed seafood during the summer (don’t know why I make it only in summer). My mom would always serve it raw after dinner as a digestive. It can also be used as the basis of a pasta sauce–more on that tomorrow . . .
Tonight, I’m enjoying the last of my beef stew from my dinner with friends the other evening, so my main course is taken care of. On the side, though, I’m making a gratinata of fennel. It’s the perfect side dish–light (until I get through with it), sweet and also crispy.
If you look back a couple of posts, you’ll see my recipe for gratinate of broccoli and cauliflower. This dish is similar but there are a couple of key differences. The fennel needs to cook through completely in broth prior to baking with breadcrumbs. It needs to be very soft–not al-dente. Also, I’m using a little butter in this one and a little grated parmiggiano cheese as well as the seasoned breadcrumbs (I’m making my own).
After the fennel is simmered in chicken broth on the stovetop, you keep a little bath of the broth around it, then sprinkle the crumbs, cheese and butter on top of it. The broth partially evaporates in the oven and the stray breadcrumbs thicken what little broth is left once it finishes baking.
This is a good accompaniment to a stew because the stew is moist and liquidy, and the fennel is crispy and luxurious. Believe me, wherever they meet on the plate, they are very happy together.
Gratinata di Finocchio
serves 4 as a side dish
2 heads fennel, chopped off at the tops of the bulbs, outer layer peeled (sometimes the outer layer is quite thick and when you’re finished peeling, sometimes you feel you’ve discarded half the bulb, but the outer layer is too fibrous to use, so discard it)
2 cups chicken broth
3/4 cup homemade seasoned breadcrumbs (see gratinate of broccoli post for seasoning)
1/4 c grated parmiggiano
4 tbls olive oil
1 tbl butter
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 425 degrees
Cut off a tiny bit (a quarter inch) of the bottom of the fennel bulbs, being careful not to remove too much. Slice fennel wedges in half lengthwise, then in quarters, keeping a bit of the core on each wedge to hold it together. Cut again into eighths if the bulbs are very large, all along making sure that the wedges are bound by a little bit of the base of the bulb. If any of the wedges separate, it’s OK.
Place the wedges (and any loose pieces) of fennel in a skillet of chicken broth and simmer, covered, for about 15-18 minutes on low heat or until fennel is soft. When fennel is soft, place it in a buttered baking dish and pour a little of the broth around it (a quarter-inch).
Add olive oil to the breadcrumb mixture and mix with fingers to incorporate. Pile the breadcrumbs on the fennel wedges. sprinkle with parmiggiano, dot with little bits of butter throughout, and grind black pepper over the top.
Bake until it begins to bubble–about 10 minutes, then broil until golden.