Monday, February 6, 2012

Fennel Baked in Milk

The April 2010 issue of Saveur Magazine has become an indispensable reference to me here in the Commissary, primarily for its section on traditional Roman recipes. I've managed to successfully attempt 5 of the included recipes (cacio e pepe pasta, spaghetti alla carbonara, bucatini all'amatricana, broccoli strascinati, and peperonata), two of which have become kitchen mainstays (the broccoli and pepper ones) here. So, when I was seeking a vegetable to go with a mishmash of leftover noodles and homemade meatballs, I knew exactly where to turn. Another of the Roman recipes that caught my eye was finocchio con latte al forno (translation: baked fennel with milk) and I saw this as the perfect opportunity to try it out.

I encountered the primary obstacle with this dish early on; that is, at the local ethnic supermarket where I tried to track down the 3 medium fennel bulbs that the recipe called for. In the produce section, I could find anise bulbs, but no fennel. Now, mind you, I was vaguely aware that fennel and anise are two different things (indeed, if you look in the Commissary spice cabinet, you'll find separate jars for fennel seed and anise seed), but I was confident that they were pretty much the same thing, a licorice-flavored vegetable. I started to get nervous, however, after bringing some home and doing a little online research. It turns out that fennel is actually in the parsley family, while anise is a completely separate species of plant (and, oddly, licorice flavoring comes from the root of a third type of plant that's a legume). Luckily, for non-professional cooks like myself, the two are more or less interchangeable, and I felt better still once I discovered that stores frequently mislabel "fennel" as "anise" (so, at the end of the day, I'm not 100% sure which one I ended up using, but I suspect it was in fact fennel).

Anyway, back to the dish. The execution is not complicated at all. You cut the fennel bulbs into wedges, braise on the stovetop in a mixture of milk and butter for a while (it took my batch about 40 minutes to get tender - keep an eye on the pot so the milk foam doesn't boil over), add ground fennel seeds and salt, dump the whole mess into a Corningware dish, top with a little more butter and a nice carpet of grated Parmesan, and bake it for about 20 minutes. The cheese browns up nicely and the fennel comes out of the oven tender and surprisingly mild-flavored (I was afraid that it might taste like a pile of licorice ropes soaked in dairy). It was a nice accompaniment to my noodles and meatballs (Mrs. Hackknife agreed, progeny abstained from commenting) and gives me a warm fuzzy feeling that I'll know what to do if fennel (or anise) bulbs appear in my farmbox sometime this season....

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