Baked Fennel Au Gratin with Orzo and Onion

I ate fennel nearly fifty years ago when my husband and I were in Zurich, Switerland in the mid-seventies where we studied Jungian psychology. I didn’t like this vegetable much back then because of its potent licorice flavor. Also, I wasn’t familiar with how to cook it. I only baked it with a sprinkle of Parmesan chesse on top. It tasted boring, and tough. I didn’t cook it much once we returned from Zurich, either. However, it recent years, quite abundantly, fennel has gained in popularily with fresh recipes appearing on the internet, cooking magazines and many cookbooks. I took one of these recipes and added ingredients, like the orzo, which pumped up its flavor.

Vegetables like this one really call out for the cook to do something different and tasty. (Cabbage is like that too.) Once fennel is cooked, sauteed for awhile, it gets more tender and turns slightly sweet and too, it looses some of its licorice flavor. This pleases me a lot!

Vegetarian, who eat cheese, or fill in with vegan cheese, will find this an appealing dish, quite filling for a dinner meal. It will please everyone with a chilled salad or complete on its own.

INGREDIENTS Serves 4-6

3-4 medium fennel bulbs (about 2 1/2 pounds total), halved lengthwise, cored and coarsely chopped, about one inch pieces. Toss out fronds, and a few inches of the green stems, or use for stock

salt and pepper

3 Tbsp olive oil, plus a teaspoon for the large baking pan

1 tsp mixed Italian herbs

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)

1 yellow onion, coarsely chopped

2-3 cups cooked orzo, or other small pasta

3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1/4 cup Panko breadcrumbs

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup Fontina or Raclette cheese, grated

1 cup Provolone cheese, grated

1 tsp fennel seeds, lightly crushed (optional, for a more pronounced licorice flavor)

1 1/2 tsp Maggie Seasoning, or Worchestershire sauce

1 Tbsp butter, (optional)

PROCESS

1 Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Put the rack in the middle of the oven. Heat a large, heavy pan to medium low and add the olive oil. Add the onion and fennel. Cook and stir occasionally 10-15 minutes as the vegetables tenderize, but only slightly brown. Keep the pan covered part of the time. Add salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, Italian herbs and the Maggie seasoning, if using and the fennel seeds, if using. Toward the end of the 15 minutes add the garlic, Lower the heat and cook another minute, but do not let the garlic brown. Stir in the cooked pasta. Turn the heat off and keep the pan covered.

2 In a medium bowl, mix the bread crumbs and Panko. Set aside. In another bowl, mix the Racklette and provolone cheeses.

3 In a greased 9 x 13 baking pan, Evenly spread out the fennl, onion and orzo. Bake for 20-25 minutes as the top slightly browns and the fennel feels soft when poked with a fork. Remove from the oven.

4 Evenly spread the Fontina and Raclette cheeses on top of the fennel mixture. Set your oven to broil. Add the Parmesan -Panko mixture atop the cheeses. Broil 3-5 minutes as the top browns slightly. Watch it closely, it will brown quickly. Remove from the oven and dot with the butter, if using. Cool 5 minutes.

TIPS AND TWEAKS

  • Substitute half a head or less of any variety of cabbage for the onion, or use a small onion, and roughly a quarter of a head of cabbage.
  • Add 1/2 teaspoon of caraway seeds at step 1.
  • Add 1 teaspoon of wine vinegar at step 1, to give a little balance to the sweet taste of the fennel.
  • Substitute other good melting cheeses – mozzarella, cheddar, Asiago, or goat.
  • For more earthy taste, add 8 ounces, chopped mushrooms at step one, along with the fennel and onion.

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