With the first day of spring a little more than a month away, I can feel the excitement of a new season of vegetables stirring as winter’s meals have just about run their course. I still love creamy comfort foods but I’m ready to start making the transition. Consider fennel as a refreshing palate cleanser between the winter and spring courses. Fennel can go either way — baked with cream and cheese in a decadently delicious gratin or raw and crisp in an improvised salad.
I know that fennel isn’t grown locally at this time of year but without really thinking about it, I assumed it was. I’ve always associated fennel with winter foods, or at least early spring. Truth be told, we won’t see it here in the Northwest until June or more likely July. After consulting Seasonal Cornucopia, a wonderful resource for finding out what’s in season, and the Produce Calendar from the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, I’m humbled to admit that I, too, have been fooled by the gorgeous offering of organic fennel at Whole Foods, on sale and after looking more closely, grown in California. Since I was stretching my definition of “local” further down the West Coast, I figured I may as well pick up some juicy heirloom oranges to add to the mix.
Crunchy, light and fresh, a salad made with thinly sliced fennel and orange slices can immediately transport me to the sunshine and warmer days ahead. Fennel adds a little touch of anise flavor that even those of us who have an aversion to licorice, will love. Mixed with the more mundane celery, the addition of fennel becomes something interesting to spark your taste buds.
My real mission when I bought fennel was to make something decadent for our Valentine’s Day dinner. This fennel gratin is embarrassingly easy to make for a special occasion so try it for your next dinner party. It takes comfort food to the next level.
Baked Fennel Gratin
Ingredients: 2 large bulbs of fennel, stalks and core removed, cut into bite-sized chunks/ 1 cup heavy cream (1/2 & 1/2 is also acceptable)/ 1 cup grated parmesan cheese/ salt & pepper
Directions: Preheat oven to 425 degrees/ In a large bowl, toss together fennel, cream and 1/2 cup cheese, salt & pepper to taste/ Put in baking dish and cover with foil/ Bake for 45 minutes/ Remove foil and sprinkle with rest of cheese, dot with butter if you dare and continue to bake until the top is brown and caramelized — about 30 minutes.
Served alongside our favorite, a pan-fried Keta salmon fillet from Loki Fish and a simple green salad and I whipped up an elegant dinner for my honey with very little prep time and got loads of praise in return.
Please don’t throw the feathery fennel fronds away. Chop them up and toss into a pasta sauce or use as a garnish on practically anything. You can also use the stalks as a flavorful bed for baking or grilling fish. Fennel is a truly versatile vegetable and as is true with all my good friends, it never hurts that it’s also beautiful.