Friday, December 13, 2013

Fennel gratin makes a warming winter dinner

Fennel and onion gratin.
When I was a kid, I hated licorice with every fiber of my being. In our family, bad children were threatened not with a lump of coal in our Christmas stocking but the evil reward of nasty black licorice. Ick.

But my first trip to France introduced me to the joys of Pernod, Ricard and other anise-scented liquors - not licorice at all, but something much more delicious. And in an adult beverage! And then further travel across Provence and into Italy revealed the wonders of fennel - perhaps the most subtle and delicious member of the whole licorice/anise/fennel family - and I was a convert. Fennel in sausage, fennel in risotto, fennel as a base for fish, thin-sliced fennel in a crisp salad? It's all good.

Tonight, armed with a big, fresh fennel bulb, I threw together a warming fennel gratin.
The entire process only required about 45 minutes, much of it just waiting time, and the result made a fine dinner, with warm yeast rolls on the side and a simple country wine (Belleruche 1912 Cotes-du-Rhone Blanc) to go along.

The procedure was almost too simple for a recipe:  Cut the bulb into 1/2-inch thick vertical slices, discard the core, and cut the slices crosswise into 1-inch chunks.  Cut a white onion into similar chunks, and smash a couple of big garlic cloves.  Put all this in a black-iron skillet with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and pan-roast over high heat for 10 or 15 minutes until browned.  Sprinkle in a little fennel pollen if you have it (optional, but it does kick the fennel flavor up a notch), and top with about 1/2 cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.  Bake at 400F for about 10 minutes or until the cheese is melted and browning. Garnish with a couple of reserved fennel fronds and serve.