Fennel / Finocchio
When Prometheus stole fire from the gods, he brought it to mere mortals by hiding it inside a fennel stalk. That never made sense to me until I saw the gigantic—eight feet tall—stalks of fennel in Greece. If asked the root meaning of “Marathon” I never would have guessed that it means “place of fennel,” which my husband told me this morning. His info popped up as he prepared one of our favorite fennel dishes, a very simple pan of quickly-steamed fennel chunks roasted with olive oil until al dente and then sprinkled with a good bit of grated parmigiano for the last few minutes in the oven. This is a standard for us, too basic to be called a recipe but such a complement to roast chicken and pork.
Fennel, finocchio, grows wild in Tuscany. At the end of summer people out on walks jump ditches, scramble up stony hillsides, and wade through brambles to collect the bright yellow flowers. How many cracked ankles result from this passion for these gold umbels, which will be taken home, dried on a rush mat or screen, and saved to season roasted potatoes? We have fennel all over our land and also growing in our orto. The garden type is shorter and has larger bulbs. Like everyone else, I’m out with my scissors and basket hunting and gathering the flowers which give an old-world taste to many dishes.
The following recipe comes from—of all places—the Florence airport restaurant. It’s a felicitous fact that Italian airports, train stations, and autogrills along the highway serve excellent food. Someone may claim a terrible meal served at one of these, but in general, when you step off the train hungry, you can mangia bene, eat well, within minutes.
Wash the fennel well and discard the outer bits if damaged. Slice in hunks, discarding the tough base. Salt them lightly and steam until al dente. In a 9 x 12 baking dish, or a large pie plate, spread the wedges of sliced fennel tossed with olive oil.
Prepare a besciamella sauce:
3 tablespoons of butter
3 tablespoons of flour
1 ½ cups of whole milk
½ teaspoon of salt
¾ cup of grated parmigiano
¼ cup of coarse bread crumbs (if you want)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Melt the butter in a saucepan on low heat and add the flour. Stir until just starting to brown and thicken. Remove from the heat and pour in milk all at once, whisking to blend. Return to medium heat and cook and stir until the sauce thickens. Add salt and ½ cup of the cheese. Dab sauce over the fennel then top with the remaining parmigiano and crumbs. Bake uncovered for fifteen or so minutes, or until top is browning and toasty.
Sliced raw fennel often is served as part of an antipasto platter. It gets a dip in the freshest olive oil and a pinch of sea salt. Crunchy and complex with a glass of prosecco. Raw fennel makes the lightest of salads when tossed with orange sections, threads of lemon peel, and olive oil. Sometimes I add to each plate a small ball of goat cheese rolled in fennel flowers. In my memoir Under the Tuscan Sun I included former Chez Panisse chef Paul Bertolli’s (http://www.framani.com/paul_bertolli) recipe for fennel fritters. That’s a nice fate for a fennel bulb.
I love ferny fennel fronds and snip them over many salads, pastas, grilled fish and vegetables. They add a deeply green taste. They’re beauteous, too, garnishing a cheese board, and even in a vase with roses. An extra joy of a herb garden: gather a bunch of fennel greens, rosemary, mints, sprigs of rue, oregano, borage. Plop them in a pitcher and your table has instant rustic charm and scent.