Wednesday, November 09, 2011

For the love of Fennel



We are well on our way to the long period of winter vegetable in the market. Thank goodness there are plenty of varieties of vegetables to enjoy all winter long. I must say that by February I am starting to long for asparagus, green beans, zucchini and all of the other veggies that disappear from the market during the winter and just a tad tired of  cabbage and cauliflower. Having said that, oddly enough, the winter vegetables are just starting to get underway and I am more than happy to see them and taste their fresh full flavors that seem to really sing when they first begin to appear.  The carrots are sweeter, artichokes, so tender that you don't even need to scrape out the choke, and fennel, fat, firm and flavorful. One of the advantages of eating locally, seasonally and simply prepared, is that food flavors seem to really come forward and shout out their tastiness. I think that your taste buds become more attuned to subtler flavors and nuances that can be lost in more complex dishes. Sure, more complex dishes are delightful and intriguing, but is a joy to indulge the simplicity of freshness and flavor-fulness as themselves.  
I offer you a couple of suggestions today for preparing one of my favorite almost year round favorites, fennel. I didn't grow up eating it, as I think southern Illinois was perhaps just a hair too warm and muggy for it to completely thrive or that it just wasn't one of my family's staples in the world of simple farm food. When I did come across it I found it wonderfully delicious, although not as common and plentiful as I found when I landed in Piedmont Italy.  I make it often in a variety of ways, braised with a splash or two of vermouth and then put in a shallow baking dishm sprinkled with a bread crumb parmesan cheese mixture and drizzled with olive oil on top and baked till crispy. I also like to shred it super thin, toss with a changing variety of fruits and vegetables, like, lemons, oranges, apples, and cooked beets and dressed olive oil and various vinegars to a make a refreshing winter salad that is a welcome change for my taste buds. 
Grilled fennel
My suggestion today for preparing fennel is a couple of, oh so easy, ways. First, if you have never grilled sliced fennel, I suggest you do so as soon as possible. I find roasting and grilling vegetables with just a kiss of olive oil and maybe, or maybe not, a squeeze of citrus or vinegar, sharpens and intensifies the  flavor of the fennel and worth trying pronto! 
My other revelation came this past Saturday when we went to nearby Cavour for their annual apple festival, "Tutto Mele", which you can see one of my previous posts about it here. I will put up some picture of this years festival soon. Anyway, Fabrizio and I decided to have a light lunch at a lovely little cafe on the town square and once again, the simplest of food can often be some of the best, at least that has been my experience in Italy. We both selected a perfectly cooked medium rare, thinly sliced roast beef with sides of vegetables. Fabrizio had the green beans and carrots and I had the fennel. Wow, what a simple but impressively tasty side dish. So tasty that I attempted to make it that night when I got home with good results. This isn't really much of a recipe, but try it cause I think you'll love the ease of preparation and satisfying results. 
Fennel gratin with roast beef
Shaved Fennel side dish/ Finnocchio al gratin
for 2 
1 large bulb fennel
parmesan or pecorino cheese
olive oil and butter

Either slice your fennel bulb as thin as possible or shave it even thinner with a mandolin, which is the preferred way.
Place your shaved fennel into a steaming basket and stem a few minutes till soft. I put a bit of salt in the water to season the fennel as it cooks. 
Once cooked, layer the cooked fennel with a touch of oil, a bit of butter and shredded parmesan or pecorino cheese and repeat.
Serve immediately. It reheats easily enough either in the oven or on top of the stove in a pan with a bit of water.
The remains of my take on fennel gratin
Are fennel bulbs part of your standard winter "go to" vegetables?
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