I still remember the first time I tasted fresh fennel. I was in the lunchroom at work, eating something very mundane (like a cheese and ham sandwich; this was before I discovered the value of preparing nutritious lunches the night before) when Aviva, a colleague of mine, pulled out a snap-lock bag of carrot sticks. Hiding among the carrots were some pieces of sliced white vegetable with pale green veins. Noting my curiosity, she gave me a piece to try; it was crisp, watery, fragrant with peppery aniseed. Now, I’m not a fan of liquorice but I love aniseed (weird but true. My husband is exactly the same). This thing was like Sambuca in vegetable form.
On the way home, I stopped in at my local greengrocer to find a piece of this vegetable heaven (which had now been identified as fennel). I bought two small bulbs, an organic lemon and a can of chickpeas. Half an hour later, I crunched through a whole bulb dipped in good extra virgin olive oil and homemade harissa-spiked hummus.
Needless to say, since then fennel has become a permanent item on my shopping list. Aaron and I (being aniseed fiends) eat it shaved in various salads, braised in stock, roasted with potatoes and carrots, pan-fried with pine nuts or, simplest of all, in chunks with a drizzle of olive oil and shaved Parmesan. So good.
Today’s post contains a slightly more complicated recipe than those mentioned above. My husband and I had a group of friends over last night to play The Settlers of Catan (don’t start playing this game, it’s addictive) and I decided to cater with a garlicky slow-roasted lamb shoulder, potato and fennel gratin, roasted Brussels sprouts and carrots followed by warm sticky date pudding with butterscotch sauce. The gratin was a hit. The sauteing process and the deliciously creamy sauce diffuse the pungent fennel just enough for aniseed-haters to enjoy it whilst also maintaining a pleasing balance of flavour against the crunchy toasted walnuts and fresh thyme.
So, whether you’re a fennel fan or not, I’d encourage you to try this recipe soon with some succulent roast meat, crusty bread and a glass of good Shiraz. It takes a bit of time to prepare but once you’ve perfected the method, it will soon come together into a warming, nourishing dish to enjoy on a cold winter’ evening.
Potato, Fennel and Thyme Gratin
Adapted from this recipe by Ina Garten
Serves 6-8 as a side dish
- 1 large or 2 small Florence fennel bulbs (equivalent to 4 cups sliced fennel)
- 1 brown onion, thinly sliced
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 kg (2 lb) firm-fleshed potatoes (I used Royal Blue)
- 2 cups thickened (heavy) cream
- 2 1/2 cups grated cheese (I used 1 cup grated vintage Cheddar, 1 cup grated Dutch Gouda and 1/2 cup blue cheese, crumbled)
- a small handful of fresh thyme, leaves picked (about 1 tbsp of leaves)
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup crumbled raw walnuts
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees (350 degrees F). Butter the inside of a 10-cup baking dish, then set aside.
Thoroughly wash your fennel to remove any soil or grit. With a sharp knife, remove the stalks, woody base and fronds (retain the feathery fronds for garnish and discard the rest). Divide the fennel bulb in half; thinly slice the bulbs crosswise.
Melt the butter in a large pan or pot with the splash of olive oil (the oil helps to prevent the butter from burning). Add in your sliced onion and fennel, then sauté on medium heat for approximately 15 minutes (or until tender). Set aside to cool slightly.
Wash and peel your potatoes. Thinly slice them (about 3mm thick) by hand or with a mandoline. In a large bowl, mix your sliced potatoes with the cream, 2 cups of cheese, the fresh thyme leaves, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add in the sautéed fennel and onion. Mix well until the cheese and fennel mixture are thoroughly incorporated.
Pour the potato mixture into your prepared baking dish. Arrange the top layer of potatoes if necessary (for presentation purposes) then press down lightly to immerse the top layer under the cream. Sprinkle over the remaining cheese.
Cover with foil and bake for one hour before removing the foil and sprinkling over the walnuts. Bake for another 30-40 minutes, or until the potatoes are very tender and the top is browned and bubbling. Set aside for ten minutes to rest before serving.
Extra notes about Fennel:
- Fennel is widely cultivated for both culinary and medicinal uses. Florence fennel (the popular cultivated type of fennel used in this recipe) has sweeter flesh than wild types and the inflated leaf bases are edible both in raw and cooked form. Florence fennel is one of the three main herbs used in the preparation of absinthe (an alcoholic mixture which originated as a medicinal elixir in Switzerland and became, by the late 19th century, a popular alcoholic drink worldwide).
- Fennel is sometimes mislabeled as ‘anise’ in supermarkets (I’ve also seen it labelled as ‘aniseed’ here in Australia)
- The bulb, foliage and seeds of fennel (both wild and cultivated) are edible. Dried fennel seed is an aromatic, anise-flavoured spice that is often used in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking. In many parts of India and Pakistan, roasted fennel seeds are consumed as mukhwas, an after-meal digestive and breath freshener.
- Medicinal uses: Fennel is sometimes used to treat flatulence in humans (and dogs!) by encouraging the expulsion of intestinal gas. Other sources claim that fennel is useful as a diuretic, that it improves eyesight and also lowers blood pressure. An organic compound in the fennel, anethole, is responsible for most medicinal benefits (but then again, anethole is also responsible for the psychoactive effects of guarana and absinthe… so moderation is likely the key).