“For I am he who hunted out the source of fire, and stole it, packed it in pith and dried fennel stalk”
Aeschyles: Prometheus Bound.
Last night, I took a leap of faith and cooked an alien. Not anything extra-terrestrial. Rather, I made a dish heroing the weird-looking, fennel bulb. Fennel is a flowering plant species from the carrot family. It is a hardy, perennial herb with yellow flowers and feathery leaves. I was challenged to try cooking fennel after seeing it used in every episode of Masterchef. After all, I’ve never even tasted fennel let alone cooked with it myself. While there are weirder looking fruit and veg, than the humble fennel bulb, even how to cut this thing posed enough of a challenge.
Indeed, the last time I bought fennel bulb it sat in fridge until it was only good for the worm farm. I simply couldn’t get my head around trying to cook it.
“There’s fennel for you, and columbines; there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays.”
William Shakespeare, ‘Hamlet’ (1564-1616)
So, this time I turned for help to what many know as the Australian cook’s Bible, Stephanie Alexander’s: The Cook’s Companion. The book is organized by ingredient. So, when you’re stumped by that mystery ingredient, Stephanie’s talking in your ear guiding you through the challenge.
To be perfectly honest, before I opened Stephanie up, I had no idea that fennel had an anniseed or licorice flavour. Not a fan of licorice, I wasn’t so sure about cooking this fennel after all, and was seriously concerned about wasting good ingredients. Yet, I guess its popularity on Masterchef encouraged me to have a go. I found a recipe in the cookbook for fennel with a simple cheese sauce and added a few of my own touches.
So here’s my adapted recipe for Pumpkin and Fennel Gratin. It was absolutely scrumptious and I’d describe the anniseed flavour as subtle and refreshing. I had no mad aspirations of giving this dish to the kids. So, I made it for an adult taste with mature cheese. My daughter helped herself, and said it was “yuck” and tasted of vomit cheese and licorice. On the other hand, my husband and I loved it and I’d be proud to serve it for a dinner party. Well, that’s if we were to host a dinner party…
Well, at least I’ve extended myself!
Pumpkin and Fennel Gratin
1 Fennel Bulb
1 cup roast butternut pumpkin
left over chicken, beef or lamb optional
2 tablespoons Plain Flour
1 ½ cups warm milk
1 cup grated strong cheese. I used Ashgrove Vintage Cheddar.
1 cup breadcrumbs made using stale bread.
2 tablespoons parmesan cheese.
salt and pepper to taste
a scattering of fresh thyme.
- Turn the oven onto 200ºC.
- Line a baking tray with baking paper. Add olive oil, a teaspoon of mustard, crushed garlic and a sprinkle of salt. Mix.
- Slice half a butternut pumpkin into cubes. Place on baking tray and bake until golden brown. Add to fennel in baking dish. Use your own discretion on the ratio of both.
- Grease an ovenproof gratin dish.
- Blanching Fennel: remove the outer layer of fennel, wash and drain. Boil in a saucepan of salted water for about 2o mins, turning over to ensure it is cooked through. You should be able to push a sharp knife through the fennel bulb.
- Slice fennel and line the greased baking dish. Add pumpkin and meat if desired.
- Melt butter in a medium saucepan. Try not to let it brown.
- Stir in flour over low heat and cook for two minutes with a wooden/large plastic spoon, to prevent the sauce tasting like raw flour. This is called a roux.
- Gradually stir in milk and bring to the boil.
- Stirring continuously, add cheese.
- Spoon cheese sauce over veggies.
- Cover with breadcrumbs.
- Sprinkle with extra cheese. I used grated parmesan.
- Bake until golden brown. The top will develop a scrumptious, cheesy crunch.
I sprinkled roughly a handful of finely chopped left over roast lamb into the mix, which also gave it a rich flavour. Well recommended.
Have you made any dishes with fennel which you’d recommend?
PS Next stop…beetroot. It’s been in the fridge for a week. Do you think using it to make a chocolate cake is cheating?