A New Way with Fennel
I thought I knew all the potential ways to cook fennel. Tender braised fennel is always a favorite. Salads spiked with the crisp licorice zing of raw fennel are delightful. Fennel sautéed in sauces or raw in salsas is magical with fish. But I recently returned from Italy with an old family recipe which presents fennel in a new, unusual, and delicious way.
One of the most surprising things about this recipe is that it calls for regular vegetable oil or canola oil instead of olive oil. That shocked me because olive oil’s presence and influence were everywhere we traveled throughout Emilia-Romagna. From the hillsides covered with the silvery-green leaved olive trees, to the sauté pans of the commercial kitchens where we enjoyed cooking lessons, to the final garnish of a drizzle of olive oil on many of the dishes we were served in restaurants, it was apparent olive oil ruled this region. My encounter with a high-tech self-serve olive oil pump, suggestive of a gasoline pump, only confirmed that.
So of course I questioned why this typical Italian family recipe didn’t use olive oil. Raffaella said the rich flavor of the olive oil would overpower the delicate flavor of the cooked fennel in this dish. This is the way she makes it, this is the way her mother made it, and this is how her daughter makes it. I’m certainly not going to tinker with a family recipe that spans three generations of great Italian cooks!
This dish results in wedges of tender fennel baked in a crispy coating of bread crumbs flavored with fresh garlic and parsley. During the dual cooking process, the sharp anise flavor of the fennel is tempered to a mild sweetness, and the texture inside the coating of crunchy crumbs becomes almost potato-like.Raffaella's Baked Breaded Fennel
2 large or 3 small Fennel bulbs
1 ½ cups plain dry fine breadcrumbs
5 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley
½ cup vegetable, canola, or other mild-tasting oil
Wash the fennel bulbs in cold running water. Cut off the fennel stalks close to the bulb. Trim or peel any tough or bruised outer leaves. Do not slice off the bottom core, although if it is nasty, shave off a very thin slice.
Cut small fennel bulbs into quarters, through the core, and cut large ones into sixths. You want to end up with uniform wedges.
Place fennel wedges into a large pot of simmering salted water and cook until just tender, about 10 - 15 minutes. Drain well.
Mix together crumbs, parsley and garlic in a small bowl. Dip cooked fennel wedges in oil and then roll in crumbs. Place in a baking dish. May be prepared up to this point several hours in advance, sitting at room temperature.
Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven until brown and crusted, about 30 – 40 minutes.