Without a doubt my favorite way to prepare many vegetables is to oil braise them, in extra virgin olive oil, of course. The method is used all over the mediterranean, especially in Turkey where the oil itself (as well as the whole category of things braised in it) are called zeytinagli. Vegetables braised in oil with tomatoes or herbs and aromatics like onion have a luscious, satisfying mouth feel and are deeply flavored of themselves. They’re incredibly easy to make and are often even more delicious cold from the refrigerator the next day. Just be sure to have some great bread on the table because you won’t want to waste any of the syrupy reduced juices.
Finocchio alla Parmigiana is an Italian classic that is often made by par boiling the fennel then topping it with tomato and parmesan for a quick pop in the oven until bubbly. But I prefer to start off by braising the fennel. Then the dusting of grated parmesan and oven gratinee is merely a final send off to a dish already imbued with richness and flavor.
These dishes are rich and satisfying because of the amount of olive oil in them. Don’t be tempted to reduce the amount of oil. Serve it instead of meat as the main part of the meal accompanied by a fresh crunchy salad, good bread and maybe a bit of fresh cheese like chevre or feta. Also delicious with grilled fish.
Fennel alla Parmigiana
Look for round bulby fennel. They are sweeter than the flat ones.
4 large round bulbs fennel
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup water
1 cup tomato sauce or peeled chopped tomatoes
Salt to taste
Trim fennel and remove the very fibrous outer layer of the bulb. You might feel like you’re wasting a lot of vegetation but your worms or compost pile will be happy. Cut the bulbs in half vertically. If they are quite large you may cut them in quarters. Find a saucepan or casserole dish that just fits all the fennel in one layer with no gaps. This is a key part of the process. Large empty spaces in the pan can result in burning and uneven cooking.
Pour the olive oil and water over the fennel. Salt to taste and dot the tomato sauce over the cut bulbs. Now take a piece of parchment paper and cover the fennel. The paper should be touching the fennel and tucked into the sides of the pan. This allows faster cooking and keeps flavor in.
Bring liquid in pan to a simmer and cook for about 15-20 minutes or until the fennel is tender when pierced with a paring knife. You can lift the parchment to check but tuck it back over for further cooking. When the fennel is yielding to the knife remove the parchment. If there is still a lot of liquid then turn the fire up and let it bubble away to reduce. You want some nice syrupy juices.
Now you’re done cooking the fennel. You can serve it this way. But if you wish, carefully lift out the soft bulbs and place in oven proof dish or casserole. Sprinkle with imported Italian grated parmesan and place in 375 degree oven until dotted golden brown. Serve immediately or let cool and serve at room temperature.