I feel it’s only fair after subjecting you all to Brussels sprouts, and urging you to give them another try, that I give something a second try, too. The tough part about that is… there are so few foods that I don’t like. I will eat pretty much anything. Not eggs shells or raw potatoes like someone we know, but….
The reason I’m so big on giving not-so-favored foods a second shot is because in the past, when I’ve done it, I’ve always been rewarded. Over the years, our tastes change, and if we don’t keep trying something, how will we know that we still don’t like it? I know this all sounds very reasonable, but I can acknowledge that some foods are just… not for me. And I’m sad to say that fennel has always been that food for me.
Not so long ago, if you would have asked me about fennel (what, don’t you ask people for their random thoughts on vegetables all the time?), I would have probably made a disgusted face and then went on and on about how it’s one of the few foods that I can’t stand. Hate, hate, hate. It tastes like licorice, but not the delicious cherry kind, the evil black kind that you can smell from the next room. And then I would have gone on to tell you that it’s even worse than black licorice, because it’s not sweet and there’s no chewy texture.
Well, somewhere in the past year I actually started liking black licorice. So that got me thinking… maybe I could learn to like fennel. It always looks so beautiful in the store with its big, leafy green fronds that look like dill. Hey, I like dill! It’s a start. On an impulse, I grabbed a few bulbs and threw them in my basket. Then, for about a week, they sat in my fridge and stared at me. They were making me nervous. I just knew I was going to have to do something with them because one of the only things that I like even less than fennel is wasting food. The fennel and I were in a standoff for about a week before something had to give. So I chopped the tops off of them and then they weren’t so menacing. They looked kind of like kohlrabi. And I like kohlrabi.
With this fresh burst of confidence, I started my recipe search. I quickly ruled out anything that involved raw fennel, figured it was better to take the whole thing one step at a time. All I can say is, wow, there are a lot of ways to cook fennel. To be honest, a small part of me was looking for a recipe that promised to turn the fennel into something that didn’t taste like fennel. I found no such recipes (um, duh), but I did find this recipe from Gabrielle Hamilton, who, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is pretty much the darling of the culinary world right now. So she has to be doing something right. Ok, ok, the cream and butter and cheese might also have played some role in my decision to use this recipe.
At this point, I think we can all pretty much see where this is going. I was wrong. Fennel is delicious. At least when you bake it with huge amounts of fat and dairy. The licorice-y, spicy flavor that made me dislike fennel in the first place mellows out and kind of dissolves into the cream. I almost… gasp… wanted to taste more of it. The fennel had a sweetness that was the perfect foil to all that salty parmesan, especially the golden, bubbly crust on top. The whole thing still tasted like fennel, which is why on the first taste I wasn’t sure I liked it. But then I took another bite. And another. And another. By the time we had finished off a quarter of the dish, I decided that it was actually pretty delicious. By the time we had finished off half of the dish, I realized that I was actually enjoying eating fennel. I won’t even tell you about the proclamations I made while eating the leftovers.
So, the moral of the story is, if I can make peace with fennel, so can you! Or, at the very least, a few measly Brussels sprouts.
Finocchio al Forno (Fennel Baked in Cream)
adapted from Saveur
1 1⁄2 lbs. fennel (about 2 large bulbs), stalks removed, halved lengthwise, and cut into 1⁄2″ wedges
2 cups heavy cream
1 1⁄2 cups finely grated Parmesan
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 tbsp. unsalted butter, cubed
Heat oven to 425°. In a bowl, toss together fennel, cream, and 1 cup Parmesan; season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a 3-qt. baking dish; dot with butter. Cover dish with foil; bake for 1 hour.