During the winter months, when most of the farmers markets in my area are closed, I find that I almost always default to the same five vegetables at the grocery store. We can eat only so much broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and kale, however, before edible fatigue sets in.
So I’ve been making a point to reach for vegetables outside of the standard five. I picked up a bag of snow peas recently, which made for a nice treat. Beets have made several appearances. And fennel has been hopping into my shopping basket a lot lately.
Fennel is actually a great vegetable to have in the crisper drawer, because it can do a variety of things. You can mince it and saute it into soups and stews in place of celery. You can shave it finely and dress it with a simple vinaigrette. It makes a very nice quick pickle. And as I learned recently, it works beautifully as a gratin.
I used Ina Garten’s recipe for Parmesan Fennel Gratin. She is the queen of simple, lush dishes, and this recipe did not let me down. She has you core the bulbs and cut them into two to four wedges. They get a dose of wine-fortified stock, are dotted with butter and covered with foil. You slide the pan into a hot oven and let them braise until they are entirely tender.
While they bake you mix up the gratin topping (just butter, Parmesan, breadcrumbs, herbs and lemon zest). When the wedges yield to a fork all the way through, you spread the Parmesan mixture over top and return to the oven until brown.
The result is a gorgeous dish that makes a perfect side dish for roast chicken, broiled fish or even steak. The anise flavor mellows and the fennel bulbs end up tasting a bit like artichoke. Try it for your next Weekender.
Before you start cooking, read these tips:
— If you’re working with giant bulbs, make sure to remove the tough outer layers of the fennel. They will never tenderize as much as you’d like and won’t make for a lovely dish.
— Choose a gratin or roasting pan that can hold the fennel in a single layer, so that everything cooks evenly.
— If fennel just isn’t your thing, this same application will work for any number of vegetables. Try it with split leeks, sweet onions or even thick rounds of cabbage.
Marisa McClellan is a food writer and canning teacher who lives in Center City Philadelphia. Find more of her food (all cooked up in her 80-square-foot kitchen) at her blog, Food in Jars. Her second cookbook, Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces, is now available.