Fennel is the coolest vegetable. It's a bulb and an herb, thanks to its feathery green fronds. The bulb and stems can be eaten raw (think thin slices for a sweet crunchy salad) or cooked--braised, sautéed, roasted, or featured in a soup. It has its own unique anise flavor but is welcoming to all sorts of other flavors. And--at least in our climate--it's a perennial plant.
For years I've used fennel for fresh salads but I've also sliced the bulbs in half lengthwise, brushed the surface with olive oil and then sprinkled grated cheese and bread crumbs on top before baking. It's a side dish I got from my mom.
But, inspired by an eggplant gratin dish I made awhile back, I thought I'd do something similar with fennel. I had two super large bulbs that still had some fronds attached. I separated those and minced them. I trimmed the fennel top and then cored the bulbs before quartering them. With the oven primed for roasting, the bulb quarters and sliced stems went onto a foil-lined baking sheet (along with some garlic cloves for me to snack on), got drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt before going into the oven for roasting for about half an hour.
Then I made a modified sauce with milk, gruyere and parmesan cheeses, green onions for flavor and color, and garlic. I don't love sauces that drown the main ingredient, but having just enough to bathe and flavor can be delightful. This does it. The onions and garlic were sautéed in olive oil to which I added the minced fronds and fresh thyme from my garden. I mixed them in a bowl with the milk, cheeses, and some salt and pepper.
Once the fennel bulbs came out of the oven, I placed them into a ceramic baking dish I'd brushed with olive oil. I tucked the cheesy oniony mixture over and around them. On top I sprinkled a topping made of panko crumbs and more cheese. Finally, I drizzled olive oil.
Into the oven it all went, back at 400° F for about 25 minutes until it was all brown and bubbly. You know you have something when you take a bite and involuntarily sigh and smile.
2 large fennel bulbs, trimmed and quartered
6 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
pinch of salt
6 green onions, thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon fennel fronds, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
½ cup milk
½ cup grated gruyere cheese
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
½ cup gruyere cheese
½ cup panko crumbs
Drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
Preheat oven to 400° F degrees.
Place fennel bulb quarters on a foil-lined sheet pan. Drizzle with 2 teaspoons olive oil and a pinch of salt. Roast for 30 minutes until soft and just becoming brown.
While the fennel is roasting, sauté the green onions and garlic in olive oil (about a tablespoon or more). Don't brown them. You just want them soft. Add the minced fennel fronts and thyme and cook for another minute. Set aside.
Remove the roasted fennel from the oven and place quarters in a baking dish coasted with olive oil.
In a medium bowl, mix together green onion and garlic mixture with milk, cheeses, salt and pepper.
Spread over the fennel in the baking dish.
To make the topping, combine the cheeses with the panko and evenly spread over the fennel bulbs and green onion and garlic cheese mixture. Drizzle with olive oil.
Bake uncovered at 400° F degrees for 25 minutes until brown and bubbly.