I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never picked up a fennel bulb and cooked with it, and am not quite sure if I’ve tried it before. I had a leftover fennel bulb after using some of the sprigs for a jarred experiment I’ve been working on (more on that to come), so it was high time.
Thankfully, the fennel bulb didn’t surprise me in any way; I suppose I’ve read about and watched enough chefs cook with it. While aromatic, it isn’t particularly flavorful but its subtle qualities would be drowned with too much accompaniment. I’d heard of fennel au gratin which appealed to my wintery cravings and decided to fill it out with rice. A crunchy salad of shaved fennel and celery paired really nicely with pecans and a drizzle of oil and vinegar. I didn’t actually have a tool that could shave the vegetables, so it was a less refined result of thinly sliced fennel and celery.
Contrary to most au gratin dishes, I tried to make this one very light so you could really taste the delicate anise flavor cooked into the rice (or at least smell it).
Cheesy Fennel Rice Casserole
(makes about 3 main course-size servings)
1 cup rice
2 cups boiling water
1 1/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth
Three quarters of 1 medium fennel bulb, chopped (reserving 1 quarter for the salad)
1/2 medium onion
1 Tb flour
1 Tb butter
1 cup milk
3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Fennel sprigs for garnish
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Let rice soak, covered, in boiling hot water for about 20 minutes. Drain. In a saucepan or small dutch oven, saute the onions and fennel in some butter or oil for about 5-10 minutes. Add rice and stir to coat evenly with grease for about 5 minutes. Pour in chicken broth. Bake in a covered casserole or dutch oven for 30 minutes or until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed.
In a medium saucepan, melt butter. Add flour and stir frequently to create a roux, about 5 minutes. Add milk and stir until smooth and bubbly. Remove from heat and stir in cheese until fully melted. Add cheese mixture to rice and stir to incorporate evenly. Bake uncovered another 5 minutes or so for a slightly golden crust and serve.
Fennel Salad with Celery and Pecans
1/4 shaved fennel bulb
1 stalk shaved celery
Handful or two of pecans
2 tsp olive oil
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
Dash of salt and pepper
Fennel sprigs for garnish
Combine all ingredients. Refrigerate for about 15 minutes before serving for best results.
(for 3 servings)
1 medium fennel bulb (at $2.99/lb): $2.78
½ onion (at $0.99/lb): $0.25
1 cup rice: $0.25
1 ¼ cup chicken or veg. broth: $0.85
1 cup milk: $0.37
¾ cup shredded cheese: $0.50
1 celery stalk (at $1.50/heart): $0.18
1 handful pecans: $0.35
Butter, flour, olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper: $0.12
Four brownie points – although mostly white in color, fennel is full of vitamins like C and fiber. Celery is also very underrated for its nutritional benefits, and both veggies taste good raw and cooked.