A recent memory, to begin:
It was a cold and depressing day in New York – and the venom of Trump’s recent election polluted the entire city in the many hushed voices whispering between the trees’ falling leaves. Dark, threatening, and draining. I sat with my friend Karen – almost an aunt really – in her Bronx apartment, and we spoke of our fears as we ate pieces of raw fennel. The beautiful flavor of the raw fennel – earthy and vegetal, licorice and dilly, cooling and sweet in its anise strength – was cooling against our tongues. Healing, interesting, and fuel for our work. In the time when our Presidents eats food for its ease and not for what it is, who think the poor must work to even deserve food – the basic, simple tastes can give us the power to continue. Strength and power and comfort – from fennel.
Fennel is also a testament to the cosmopolitan worlds past of Jewish Livorno, Venice, and Rome. Historians of Italian cuisine have noted that these communities traded foodstuffs extensively with both the great communities of the north – such as Germany and Poland – and the neighboring Arab world. Foods such as coffee, goose, and fennel were introduced by Jewish traders to the wider population – and certain foods, including fried artichokes and fennel risotto, were known as “Jewish” in Rome and Venice respectively. This history was largely erased by the mid-twentieth century, when the twin pushes of nationalism and fascism sought to “make Italy great again” by creating a monolith of heritage and cuisine. But Italian cuisine – to the chagrin of nationalists – is deeply Jewish and Arab, and Jewish cuisine likewise can sometimes be deeply Italian. In this age of cuddly white nationalism, it is a helpful fact to remember. Once, fennel was the comfort introduced from the not-so-foreign “other.”
This recipe for fennel is simple and tasty. The licorice taste of the fennel, which is too strong for some, is balanced out by the garlic and cheese, which make this dish quite hearty. If you want a lighter dish or a more vegetal one, remove the cheese and cut the garlic in half. It is also traditional to make this dish with large chunks of fennel that retain the shape of the vegetable – which makes for a wonderful final presentation.
Finocchio Gratinato/Baked Fennel
2 large fennel heads, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon dried basil
4 tablespoons melted butter
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
4 tablespoons breadcrumbs or gluten-free breadcrumbs
4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese.
- Preheat your oven to 425F/210C.
- Boil the chopped fennel in salted water for five to ten minutes, or until tender but not squishy. Drain and put at the bottom of a baking dish – 20cm x 20cm or 9 inches by 9 inches should do.
- Mix the garlic, basil, and butter together, then pour over the fennel. Stir in a little to make sure the fennel is evenly coated.
- Sprinkle the breadcrumbs, Parmesan, salt, and pepper over the fennel evenly.
- Bake for 20 minutes, or until the cheese is browned and the fennel is noticeably darker.
Thank you to Alex Cooke for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.