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Fennel bulbs work well in a variety of recipes. Cook them as you fancy: roasted fennel, grilled fennel, braised fennel, even fennel soup - or don't cook them at all and slice thinly into a gorgeous salad.
They have a penchant for weird vegetables in Italy; with flavours us simple northerners would describe as 'bitter', 'pungent', 'bleurgh'. Endive, radicchio, chicory are not your usual sweet salad leaves and rocket is just acrid. Artichokes, let's face it, are thistles and who on Earth would eat a thistle apart from Eeyore? Italian beans are yellow or purple instead of green and they eat wild mushrooms raw.
The aniseedy flavour of fennel is not everyone's cup of tea; it's also quite stringy so you won't normally approach it like good old broccoli or peas and boil it. It's relatively expensive and deceptive in yield if you set your mind to peeling the outer layer (I never do).
It is really a fat albino carrot - a member of the carrot family. It's a sexy beast for the believers in magical foods as it allegedly suppresses appetite and speeds up metabolism. About as magical as a carrot: it's a vegetable, it's full of fibre and as such helps to keep you regular and feel full when you've eaten shedloads of it. Eaten: chewed and swallowed; no amount of drinking water that fennel seeds had been floating in will make the slightest difference to your weight, health and well-being.
Fennel can be braised until it falls apart; it is a team player in a tray of roasted Mediterranean vegetables; it's nice charred and caramelised under the grill or in a skillet. It's a good mate for cheese - pasta with fennel and Gorgonzola is a classic.
This dish is one of the simplest possible but the combination of flavours makes it special. Fennel takes a while to soften, that's why I suggest to bake it for some time before adding the tomatoes and plums. And anyway, the point is to keep them chunky in the finished dish rather than end up with some kind of plum-tomato sauce.
By all means shave Parmesan over the baked fennel before serving; or dot some blue cheese. It's a great idea for lunch, an interesting side dish and even on its own with fresh crusty bread.
baked fennelServings: 2Time: about an hour
- 2 fennel bulbs, cut thickly into slices, fronds chopped
- 1 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 10-12 cherry tomatoes, halved and de-seeded
- 2 ripe plums, coarsely diced
- salt and pepper
1. Preheat the oven at 200C/400F/gas 6.
2. Put the fennel slices into a buttered gratin dish with knobs of butter on top. Bake for about 30 mins.
3. Add the tomatoes, chopped fennel fronds and plums and season generously with salt and pepper. Put back in the oven for another 15 minutes until the tomatoes and plums soften but keep their shape. Optionally, grate Parmesan on top.