I would like to withdraw my declaration of dislike for fennel.
In fact, while I will likely continue to spit out black licorice jelly beans every single time I mistake one for a chocolate pudding flavor, I think that fennel might become one of my new favorite winter vegetables. This is shocking for me, but I admit that what I presumed fennel would taste like, and what it actually tasted like when cooked with lemon zest, onions, parsley, and other flavors was not what I expected.
I'm still on a mission to create a middle menu for Thanksgiving. When I found a recipe for Fennel Gratin, I considered the possibilities: I could hate the mere smell of it baking and dump the whole thing out before we ate it or I could go ahead and try it out, even serve it to Tim, and if we both liked it then it might be a contender.
As I was slicing the fennel bulbs, I tried to decide how I liked the smell. I didn't hate it and the sheer excitement of finding out that I might actually like it made me a little giddy. While I was sauteing the slices of fennel with onion and garlic, Tim wandered into the kitchen with his nose tipped up in the air.
"What smells so good?"
And when I popped the finished product out of the oven, I completely forgot to snap a picture because we couldn't wait to taste it. Honestly--we loved it. I feel a little silly now about years of insulting and ignoring fennel when the plant hardly deserved it.
I called my mom a few days later and my Fennel Gratin came up in conversation. "We loved it," I told her, "but I thought that I hated that fennel flavor." And my mother, in all of her motherly wisdom, said, "I thought you did, too, but our tastes change as we get older."
I don't think this will be going on my Thanksgiving menu, because I suspect that the young kids (and perhaps some of the older ones) might still have an aversion to fennel. I think this dish will be my little (not-so) secret recipe, saved for a more adventurous dinner crowd.
Fennel, my new friend, I hope we meet again soon.
Fennel Gratin with Parmesan and Lemon
adapted from Bon Appetit, November 2010
Two notes: 1. To me fennel was more of a sweet, fruity vegetable flavor than the black licorice flavor I expected. In fact, I wouldn't put fennel in the same category of black licorice flavoring whatsoever. If you are unsure, pick up a fennel bulb at the store and smell it. I think you will be (pleasantly) surprised. 1. Trust the recipe. You really do need 15 minutes to saute the fennel to get it to soften! ,
Ingredients for the Gratin
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, halved and cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 garlic clove, minced
2-3 large fennel bulbs, trimmed, cored, and cut into 1/4 inch slices
1/4 cup chicken stock
1 tbsp Italian parsley, chopped
1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
salt & pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. In a large, wide pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, saute until soft but not brown, about 5 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high and add fennel. Saute until fennel is slightly softened and starting to brown, stirring often, about 15 minutes. Stir in broth, parsley, thyme, and red pepper flakes. Season to your taste (recommended is 1/2 tsp kosher salt and 1/4 tsp black pepper). Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer about 5 minutes until broth is mostly absorbed. Transfer to an oiled baking dish.
Ingredients for the topping
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1/3 cup bread crumbs (panko preferred)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tsp Italian parsley, chopped
3/4 tsp lemon zest
Melt butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add breadcrumbs and saute until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. In a small bowl, mix breadcrumbs, parsley, Parmesan cheese, and lemon zest.
Sprinkle crumb topping over fennel. Bake until heated through and topping is slightly browned, about 20 minutes. Serve warm.