There are moments in life where you have a sudden realization that you are living what had once been your wildest dreams. Such was my thought as I stood over Stephanie, who crouched over the row of fennel, clippers in hand. I pointed, “I’ll take that one. Oooh, and that one looks really good!” I mean honestly, who has it that good? I laughed, holding back the row cover for her, dreaming already about what I might make from these beautiful licorice-flavored dirt candies. A salad with citrus and spring onion? Pasta with caramelized fennel, its anise notes mellowed and sweetened?
It was cold and raw, so I opted for a gratin, that most comforting and warming of dishes, tender and nutty under a blanket of fragrant, golden cheese . . . Yes! I would make it a symphony of fennel, revealing its complexity and nuances in the flavor layers of seeds, bulb and fronds . . . would a shot of pastis, sambuca or ouzo on the side be too much? Not for a dreamer like me!
2 tsp. fennel seeds
1-2 bulbs fennel
1 small red onion
1 russet potato, peeled and sliced paper thin
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper
3 Tbs. minced fennel fronds
1/2 c. cream or half and half
1/4 c. grated parmesan
Preheat oven to 350. Toast fennel seeds in small skillet until fragrant. Once they cool, chop finely and set aside. Cut fennel bulbs in half lengthwise, and remove the core. Slice the halves into paper thin slices and place in a large bowl. Cut onion in half and cut halves into thin half-moons. Add to bowl with fennel, along with fennel seeds, garlic, potato slices, and fennel fronds. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Add cream or half and half and toss to coat. Line bottom of small gratin dish with potato slices, then pack remaining ingredients on top. Pour cream left in bowl over potato-fennel mixture, adding more cream as necessary to come about halfway up sides of gratin dish. Top with grated cheese. Bake until potatoes are tender and top is brown.