When I was in college, my host mother in Florence taught me how to make this. It’s been one of my favorite fancy side dishes ever since. My son always requests it at Thanksgiving. It's great for a big meal like that, because it can be made ahead of time. ;o) —AntoniaJames
2 - 4
3 small or 2 medium bulbs of fennel
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons Wondra (superfine) flour
1 ½ cups whole milk, warmed
¾ cup grated parmigiano, divided in half
½ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, coarsely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Butter for preparing the baking dish
A good-sized pinch (1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon) freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Farenheit. Generously butter a flat baking dish.
Cut the hard end off the bottom of each fennel bulb, remove the tough outer layers, cut in half lengthwise, remove the core and fronds and the thin stalks on top. Slice thinly from top to bottom. Very finely chop enough of the stalks, taken from the lower part of them, to make about ¼ cup. Finely chop about a tablespoon of the greenest fronds.
Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat; when it starts to shimmer, add the sliced fennel. Saute for about two minutes. Then add the chopped fennel stalks. Cook, stirring frequently, until the slices are just barely soft. Remove from pan.
Add the butter over medium heat. Once it is melted and has started to get hot, sprinkle in the flour, stirring to combine, adding a bit at a time until all has been added. Continue to stir it over the heat until the mixture is a light golden brown.
Add the milk gradually, whisking or stirring briskly all the while, to incorporate the milk and to remove any lumps. When the sauce is very smooth, add ¼ cup of cheese, the fresh thyme leaves and the chopped fennel fronds; stir well. Test for seasoning and correct, if necessary.
Put the fennel in the baking dish. Pour the sauce over the fennel and sprinkle on the freshly grated nutmeg and the remaining cheese.
Bake until the cheese has melted, the sauce is bubbling around the fennel and the top of the dish has become brown in a few places. This should take between 10 and 25 minutes, depending on what shelf of your oven you use, how warm the ingredients are when you put the dish in the oven, etc. (You can put it on the top shelf or under the broiler for just a minute or so, if the dish is generally warm throughout and you just want to melt and/or darken the cheese on top.)
I hope you like this.
Yours truly, AntoniaJames ;o)
When I'm not working (negotiating transactions for internet companies), or outside enjoying the gorgeous surroundings here in the San Francisco Bay Area, I'm likely to be cooking, shopping for food, planning my next culinary experiment, or researching, voraciously, whatever interests me. In my kitchen, no matter what I am doing -- and I actually don't mind cleaning up -- I am deeply grateful for having the means to create, share with others and eat great food. Life is very good. ;o)