Sunday, March 18, 2012

Side Dishes: Parmesan Fennel

Every August I feel guilty. Bloggers and food magazines are raving about and providing recipes for sweet corn and super ripe tomatoes. And while I like those things just fine, I don’t feel like I live for tomato season. It makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me as a food person. Really, I prefer fall, winter and early spring vegetables. Butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, leeks, celery root, fennel. Some people feel their heart go pitter-pat when they see the first ripe tomatoes in the market. I feel that same emotion when I see the first stalks of Brussels sprouts, like enormous lumpy unopened parasols, or the bunches of Swiss chard that look like (and are probably somehow botanically related to) a weed we used to pick when I was a kid—they were the same shape, but green all the way through, and we’d pick them on walks during preschool and hold them over our head as “umbrellas.”

I can’t really say why this is the case. Surely nothing is more versatile than the tomato, and nothing is easier to prepare than corn on the cob. But maybe that’s it—maybe I like the challenge of fall/winter vegetables. Their edible parts are so often hidden under tough rinds or strange skins (for which see: squash, butternut and root, celery). Some of them seem more like additions to things, rather than things themselves (Exhibit A: leeks). They insist that you be a bit creative with them. For this reason, I love vegetarian cookbooks. I probably have a dozen cookbooks with titles like, “Vegetables” and, “Vegetables from an Italian Garden” and, “Rose Elliot’s New Complete Vegetarian.” I am as devoted a carnivore as you’ll find, but I consider myself to be more of a meat-and-broccoli gal, than meat-and-potatoes gal (not that I don’t love the starches too—it makes me sad that there’s no such thing as a carbotarian, because I’d be such a good one. I guess I just love it all. *sigh*).

So I’m always trying to think of new ways to serve these sort of odd-man-out vegetables. Flip through your average cookbook, and about the only way cabbage is presented is in cole slaw. Broccoli or cauliflower might be roasted. Brussels sprouts (if they appear at all) are generally roasted or sautéed with bacon. All fine, but like anything they become less interesting with repetition. And I’m as guilty of that repetition as anyone. For a long time, the only way I cooked fennel was to quarter it and roast it with some olive oil, salt, and pepper. Delicious, but after awhile, dull.

So I thought to change it up a bit. I cut the fennel into strips about the size of a French fry, tossed it with olive oil and salt, and spread it out on baking sheets. I grated parmesan cheese over it, and roasted it at 450 degrees. The result was soft fennel with a crisp coating of cheese. There were a few strands that had roasted to an almost charred state, and all of it was beautifully brown. It required little effort beyond slicing and grating. The oven did all the work.

If you’ve never had fennel, or never had it cooked, this is a good introduction. The resemblance to French fries makes it approachable, and so far I haven’t found too many things that can’t be made palatable with some cheese. I highly recommend this as a side dish for steak or rack of lamb. If you’re one of those tomato-and-corn lovers, it may help to tide you over until the summer produce shows up. If you’re a winter vegetable lover like me, you may have found a new favorite.

Parmesan Fennel
Serves 4

Two large fennel bulbs
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt
About ½ cup grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Trim fronds and stalks from fennel. Using a vegetable peeler, shave off any browned spots. Ideally you want to choose unblemished bulbs, but sometimes you have to pick the best you can get. If there’s lots of discoloration, pick really large bulbs that you can peel a layer off and still have a reasonable amount left.

Cut the bulb in quarters and cut out the solid core in the middle. Cut the quarters into strips about ¼” thick, about the thickness of the average fast food French fry. Don’t worry if the slices fall apart—some will stay together, but some won’t. Toss the strips and slices in a bowl with the olive oil and a pinch of salt.

On a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, spread the fennel in a single layer (you may need more than one baking sheet to achieve a single layer with this much fennel). Using a microplane grater, or the smallest holes on a box grater, grate the parmesan over the fennel. The fennel should be well coated with cheese—it will look like it’s been through a heavy frost, or a light snowfall. It’s best to grate the cheese over the fennel, rather than grate it ahead and scatter it. It becomes somewhat compacted when you pick it up to scatter it. It will scatter more evenly if you grate and scatter at the same time.

Roast the fennel for 20-25 minutes, or until the cheese is golden brown. Some of the pieces on the outer edges may get a bit darker—that’s fine. You want some contrast between the soft/crisp pieces and the crisp/crisp pieces. If you let the cheese get quite brown, you’ll actually get two dishes for the price of one. The bits of parmesan webbing between the fennel pieces are a sort of parmesan crisp or “tuille” that will add nice contrast to the dish as well. Remove from the oven when done to your liking and serve.


Mary said...

Very very nice! This sounds delicious. I'm new to your blog, so I've taken some time to browse through your posts. I'm so glad I did that. I really like the food and recipes you share with your readers and I'll definitely be back. I hope you have a great day. Blessings...Mary

Tracy said...

Thank you, Mary. I hope you find some things you like! Cheers!