When we first joined the CSA about six years ago — while we knew it was the right thing — we were sometimes daunted by the produce. As we found out, you get a lot of produce that you might not buy at the store, or that we weren’t buying, at any rate. One such example is fennel. Sure, we’d seen it at the store, but we didn’t know what to do with it, so why buy it? With the CSA, you get fennel sometimes. Sure you can trade, but we toughed it out and figured, hey, people eat this, let’s learn how. At first we’d use it along with a bunch of roasted vegetables, or maybe dice finely into a tomato sauce to give it a fennelly flavor, but it never got to the point of actually looking forward to fennel.
Then, one day, we checked out a book from the library, Rustic Italian Food by Marc Vetri and David Joachim, and found a recipe for fennel gratin. We tried it once and we were hooked. You will be too, since it takes five minutes of prep, and 30 minutes in the oven, and, ohh how delicious!
- 2-4 Fennel bulbs, cleaned and trimmed
- sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- red pepper flakes
- 3-4 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
- 3-4 Tbs Parmesan cheese, grated
As always, when you have only a few ingredients to stand out, don’t skimp. Break out the good olive oil (absolutely no substitutions) and Parmesan. Use coarse salt crystals; you want bites of salty, not all salty.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Prepare fennel. Trim each bulb back to eliminate the woody stems, then slice in half longitudinally and arrange in a baking dish. Use the smallest baking dish that will hold the fennel; otherwise, you’ll use a lot of oil.
Top fennel. Sprinkle a bit of sea salt on each bulb half, then pepper, then a pinch of red pepper flakes, and finish up with the cheese.
Add oil. Now pour oil into the baking dish so that it comes up 1/4 of an inch or so around the bulbs.
Bake. Put in in the oven and bake for about 30-45 minutes, or until the cheese browns and the bulbs are fork-tender.
Serve and eat. If you baked it long enough, the fennel should mostly dissolve in your mouth, with little hot spots, little salty spots, and little peppery spots. This is, by far, the best way to eat fennel. Five stars.
Oh, don’t discard that oil left in the baking dish. Use it for sautéing onions for risotto, coating pizza crust, dipping oil for bread, whatever you can think of — just don’t waste something that good!