Finocchio al Forno

November 17th, 2011
Baked Fennel

Fennel bulb is a seasonal vegetable most readily available in Italy during the cooler months– late Fall, Winter, and Spring. There are certain flavors that are far more appreciated in Italy than in the United States, and one of these is the “licorice” family of flavors. Anise is used to flavor liquors and sweets throughout Italy and Umbria is no exception: you can find the slightly sweet, rock-hard doughnut-shaped cookies called “ciambelle all’anice” in any grocery store in Terni, for example, and of course there are many after-dinner liqueurs (Viparo is a locally famous local variant actually made in Terni)  that are both bitter and slightly licorice-y.  Artichokes, which have a slight licorice taste, are used extensively in Umbrian (and especially Roman cooking), as is their close cousin the cardoon (cardo, cardi (pl), in Italian).  Here, we highlight another vegetable known for its slight anise flavor and, when cooked, fleshy, yielding texture– Finocchio al Forno, literally “Baked Fennel.” It’s a dish that our cooks, Egizia and Franca, often serve at La Romita, especially during the Spring and Fall sessions when the bulb is at its best. Like so many dishes prepared at La Romita, it is filling yet light at the same time. Essentially, the fennel bulbs are cleaned, briefly boiled, and then transferred to a buttered dish  and put in the oven to bake with the addition of a small amount of bechamel and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Picking and preparing fennel: The bulb should be firm and smooth, and heavy for its size (this indicates freshness, as the bulb has not lost water to storage and dehydration). To clean and trim a fennel bulb: cut the fleshy leafy stalks completely off at the top of the bulb. Cut a slice off the bottom of the bulb and discard the outermost segments, which are the toughest and usually bruised or somewhat discolored.

Finocchio al Forno

Ingredients:

  • 5-6  Fennel Bulbs, cleaned and cut into vertical segments, like an orange.
  • 1/4 c plus 2 tsp  freshly grated parmigiano
  • 3/4 c bechamel sauce
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

For the Bechamel sauce (makes approximately 1  and 1/4 c.  Bechamel):

  • 1 1/2 cup milk
  • 3 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp  flour
  • a pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil, add salt, then add the fennel segments. You will cook until slightly tender, between 8 and 10 minutes. Meanwhile make the bechamel: over medium heat, melt the butter. When melted, stir in the flour to make a thick paste (roux) , reducing the heat so the roux doesn’t burn. Meanwhile, heat the milk (microwave works great for this) until quite hot but not boiling. Carefully add about 1/2 the milk to the roux, stirring vigorously, until all lumps are gone. Add the remaining milk and gently stir over heat until the bechamel is the desired consistency– like a (very) runny cake or pancake batter.

When the fennel is partially cooked, as described above, arrange the segments evenly in a buttered 9 x 9 baking dish. Sprinkle the parmesan cheese over the fennel, then drizzle the bechamel sauce (the above bechamel recipe is generous and you may, depending on individual preference, have a 1/2 c or so left over). Place in the oven and cook until the Bechamel and cheese start to color slightly, 20-25 minutes. Serve with freshly grated pepper, to taste.

This dish goes exceptionally well with pork of any kind– try oven-baking boneless pork chops seasoned with olive oil, crushed garlic, and salt/pepper at the same time, as lean cuts cook quickly and remain tender if cooked at high heat. Serve warm with a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon.

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