Baked fennel has been a staple on our overcrowded holiday table ever since I can remember, scattered amid roasts, sautéed greens, and bread baskets on our table. We had a metal tray dedicated to baking it, and I remember the heaps of fennel piled and loaded with oil, béchamel sauce, and cheese. I always found it a little on the heavy side for my digestion, so I never ate much. As our home cooking evolved, though, we learned to appreciate fennel’s liquorice-y flavour and stopped pairing it with heavy sauces and cheese. This flavourful saffron dish lets the fennel flavour really shine. When I first tried it, I knew I had found my new favourite recipe for the holidays.
Serves 6-8 as a side
4 medium fennel bulbs (about 1.2 kg)
Pinch (1g) of ground saffron
60ml olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1½ tsp salt
2 pinches of pepper
2 pinches of ground nutmeg
75ml Crumb Topping “Alla Romagnola” (see below; use polenta meal if gluten-free, adding 1 extra tbsp olive oil)
1 tsp dried marjoram or thyme
40g pistachio nuts or almonds, ground
Trim the hard tops off the fennel bulbs and remove any brown skins. Wash them thoroughly and cut them in half, then cut each half into three wedges. Steam or boil the fennel for 10 minutes, until fork-tender but still firm. Drain and let cool for 10 minutes, then place in a 20x30cm casserole, or any casserole dish that can fit the fennel slices in a single layer.
Preheat the oven to 205°C/gas mark 6.
In a small bowl, dissolve the saffron in the olive oil and add the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Toss the fennel slices with the saffron oil and the breadcrumbs in the casserole dish, and then spread them so that they overlap as little as possible. Sprinkle evenly with the marjoram. Top the fennel slices with the ground nuts and drizzle with a bit more olive oil. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the top is golden and the edges are slightly caramelised. You can grill the fennel for about 2 minutes for extra crunch.
Crumb Topping Alla Romagna
Makes about 175ml
50g homemade whole-grain breadcrumbs
50ml extra-virgin olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, ?nely chopped
a large handful packed fresh parsley, ?nely chopped
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
Combine the breadcrumbs, olive oil, garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl and mix well. For a more flavourful result, prepare the crumb topping the same day or a few hours before you need it. It can be stored in the fridge for about 3 days.
Extracted from Naturally Vegetarian: Recipes and Stories from My Italian Family’s Farm by Valentina Solfrini (Avery, approx €34). Photograph by Valentina Solfrini.