We used to make a version of this using plenty of butter and lashings of cream. Don’t get me wrong, it was delicious, but for me at least, too rich to eat more than once in a blue moon. I’ve been wanting for a while now to try a pared-down version, using less dairy. Well, I finally got around to it, and I think it was great – steaming the fennel before it goes in the oven guarantees that each piece cooks down to succulent, juicy perfection. The shallots add little bursts of sweetness and the parmesan crust adds just enough contrast in texture and taste (I kept the cheese pretty minimal – I bet it would be good with even more…)
I add fennel seeds because I love aniseedy flavours and tend to find myself trying to boost, rather than subdue them. Cooking fennel like this turns the volume down on that taste that I enjoy so much – which for some would probably be a good thing – but I like to put some back with the seeds. Other than that I keep the flavours simple, just adding garlic, black pepper, a little nutmeg, and some lemon zest. This makes a surprisingly filling main, but I think would be even better as a side dish to a good sausage or two!
3 large fennel bulbs
200g shallots, peeled but left whole
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
2 tsp. veg bouillon/chicken stock cube
30g parmesan, finely grated
1 tbsp. fennel seeds
A grating of nutmeg
A little lemon zest
Preheat the oven to 180°C.
Trim the fennel fronds from the bulbs, setting aside for later. Leaving the base of the fennel intact (it will ensure that the layers hold together) cut the fennel into wedges. Steam for about ten minutes or so, until it starts to soften.
Arrange the fennel in an ovenproof dish, sprinkling the garlic over and inbetween the pieces. Wedge in the shallots into the gaps. Sprinkle over the fennel seeds, then season with plenty of cracked black pepper, and a couple of gratings of nutmeg.
Gently heat the milk, dissolving the bouillon or stock cube in it. Pour over the fennel, then cover the dish and bake for about thirty minutes, until both the fennel and shallots are tender. Scatter the parmesan evenly over the top, add a little pepper if you like, then allow to bake uncovered until the cheese starts to turn golden brown. Just before serving, grate over a little lemon zest and sprinkle with the fennel fronds.