Ah, fennel. We have a special relationship with this spring veggie here at the farm. Not only do we grow it, but our Caramelized Fennel recipe somehow ended up as one of the most popular on the web and brings us plenty of visitors. Why? Dunno…but we are certainly happy about it (again, thanks to Alice Waters, we really just riffed on her recipe).
It’s funny, but as far as Google is concerned Putney Farm is a place where people mostly eat fennel and mix drinks. And while that doesn’t sound all bad, we can assure you there are other things going on than cooking fennel…
Regardless, we do love our fennel, and while caramelizing is our go-to cooking method, there are other ways to enjoy these funky anise-flavored bulbs. The key thing to remember about fennel is that it loses much of the anise flavor when cooked, and the same cooking will bring out some of the fennel’s natural sugars. In the end, you often get flavors and textures that will remind you of roasted or fried eggplant. And we think that is a good thing.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that along with caramelizing fennel, an approach like eggplant parmesan will yield very tasty results. And we found a recipe to adapt from “Vegetable Literacy” by Deborah Madison, that heads in just this direction, Fennel al Forno.
In this recipe you cook fennel and aromatics in a broth of fennel seeds, thyme, saffron, tomato paste and chicken (or vegetable) stock. Then you put the fennel in a gratin dish, add some mozzarella and parmesan cheese and bake the whole thing. Sounds good, huh?
And it is good. Very good. The rich tomato-saffron broth accents the sweet fennel, the cheese adds more richness and texture while the slight anise notes balance the flavors. This dish works very well as a side, but you can also serve it as a light lunch on toasted brown bread (this is now a household favorite).
Fennel al Forno:
(Adapted from Deborah Madison)
Notes Before You Start:
- No notes, go buy some fennel.
What You Get: Another flavorful use for your fennel. An easy veggie dish.
What You Need: No special equipment required.
How Long? About an hour, but with about 10 minutes of active time. Anytime dish. Also one you can make ahead and reheat.
Serves 4 as a side
- 2 large fennel bulbs
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
- 1 pinch saffron
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 4-6 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese, broken into pieces
- 1 oz. parmesan cheese, grated
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Fennel greens or fresh herbs, for garnish
- Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Trim the fennel bulbs of their stalks. Cut most of the base, but leave a little intact to hold the bulb together. Peel off any tough, damaged or bruised outer layers of the fennel. Cut each bulb in half lengthwise and then cut the fennel into wedges about 1 1/2 inches wide.
- Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion, fennel seeds, saffron and thyme. Cook until the saffron colors the onions, 2-3 minutes. Then add the fennel wedges and cook until golden brown, stirring occasionally.
- Once the fennel has some good color add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Then stir-in the tomato paste, stock and 1 teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Bring to a boil and then lower to a simmer and cover. Cook until the fennel is tender, 15-20 minutes. If there is too much liquid, cook uncovered for a few minutes or remove some of the broth.
- Pour the fennel mixture into a gratin dish. Taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in the butter and then add the mozzarella, tucking it in between pieces of fennel. Sprinkle the parmesan on top. Place the dish in the oven and cook until the cheese melts and bubbles, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, garnish with fennel fronds or fresh herbs. Serve.