Fennel Gratin

By Elisabetta Ciardullo

I have met many people who do not like fennel very much. I cannot partake this opinion, as for me fennel, raw or cooked, has a distinctive, mild, and flowery flavor, sweet and delicate, that has accompanied me all my life. It can be associated easily with other ingredients and results in a unique dish, with deep and unique flavors.

It is a winter vegetable, traditionally found in the Mediterranean basin but now grown everywhere. It was known to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans as an edible plant as well as an ingredient in traditional medicine for its anti-inflammatory properties. Fennel grows under the soil, and can sustain cold temperatures. It is helpful for the human body in many ways, as it is rich in Vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium; it is also rich in polyphenols, has zero cholesterol, a ton of fibers and few calories. So many reasons to love this winter vegetable, not to mention the fact that you can rinse and chop it, and in just a couple of minutes you add a different flavor to any basic salad!

It’s not my goal to make publicity, but I buy fennel (all year round, the miracles of globalization) at Trader Joe’s. I was thought that the best fennels are the ones with a round bulb, as opposed to those that look a bit flat and long.

My mother used to give me a raw fennel, washed and cut in quarters, as a snack to bring to school. It makes me smile when I think how much the concept of snack is different in the US, but to tell you the truth it has evolved – and not in a positive way – also in Italy.

My mother did not think nor know anything about the low calories/good vitamins ratio, it was just some intuitive thing, fennel was readily available in all the markets, very cheap (it is still sold by the kilo in Italy and not by the piece) and easy to pack. It can stay fresh for a long time, even outside the refrigerator if kept at a low temperatures (like in the garage or on the balcony). I always loved the crunchiness of the fennel. Just a bit hard to eat during class, as it was also very noisy!

This dish is a perfect make ahead side dish and reheats beautifully.

For 4 portions as a side dish:

2 large fennels with some green fronds
4-5 shallots
½ to ¾ cup of milk (can be substituted with cream for a very festive version)
2 tablespoons of butter (can be skipped)
½ to ¾ cup fennel cooking water
½ cup parmigiano cheese to sprinkle on top
Salt and pepper, nutmeg, superior extra virgin olive oil

1. Preheat the oven at 350F

2. Put a 4 quarts pot filled with water on the stove. Add one teaspoon of salt. Bring the water to a rolling boil.

3. Cut the stalks and green fronds of the fennel and set aside. Cut the fennel bulbs in two longitudinally. Do not remove any layers.

4. Wash both the green and the half bulbs without breaking them, drain on a kitchen towel.

5. When the water is boiling, put the fennel, and let it cook for 10 minutes.

6. In the meantime, peel the shallots, slice them, put them in a non-stick pan, drizzle with olive oil and let them sizzle for a few minutes. When they start to turn gold, add ½ a cup of the fennel cooking water and cook until absorbed, 4-5 more minutes.

7. Remove the fennel from the water and let it drain. Do not throw the water away.

8. Transfer the cooked shallots in an oven proof dish, medium size.

9. When the fennel has cooled down, slice it vertically and regularly, approximately 8 slices per piece, keeping it together.

10. Now dispose the slices symmetrically in the dish with the shallots on the bottom – see pictures.

11. Add the milk (that can be substituted with cream for a festive dish), add ½ cup of cooking water. Cut the butter in small pieces and add on top. Add some of the chopped green.

12. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

13. Cook in the oven for about 20/30 minutes until when the fennel is soft and has a darker color. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with parmigiano, and put back for 10 more minutes.

14. This last step can be done just before dinner is served, so to have a nice and hot side.

A Few Notes:
DO NOT throw the cooking water away: it is an excellent drink, warm or cold! And it can be used as a vegetable broth for Risotto or many other dishes.

Elisabetta Ciardullo is the founder of Think Italian! Events. As Personal Chef she is an ambassador of the Italian cuisine and culture, bringing it into the private homes of Americans, as well as to many corporate clients in Los Angeles.