Cooking soothes heartache, it is widely known. Though it is easy to forget this when one is in the grips of such heartache, or malaise, or depression, or any variation of the above. There’s something about measuring, stirring, follow directions, fussing over culinary details—fennel fronds, or fennel fronds and a bit of parsley? perhaps I should halve the rosemary? is it brown enough yet?—that takes you out of yourself, if only momentarily.
It takes you out of yourself just long enough to be able to find yourself again, somewhat refreshed and renewed, reassured of your ability to care for yourself, to be nourished. These are not small things, such reminders. As—when one is sad—it can be hard to remember such quotidian necessities: to eat, sleep well, stay hydrated, etc. The basics.
Cooking brings you back to those primordial necessities. It also adds necessary touches of luxury.
Enter the Fennel al Forno.
Enter David Tanis, master of simple elegance; master of the unfussy, but remarkable, culinary creation.
I stumbled upon this recipe in the NY Times on Valentine’s Day, of all times—you know that cheery holiday where we herald San Valentin and all of his little cupid hearts and arrows? Yes, that one.
But I stumbled across this recipe and felt a determination rise within me—to celebrate this Valentine’s Day with the nurturing of my appetite. A worthy cause, I think. I left work at 5 pm, as usual, and rushed to the grocery store, printed newspaper recipe in tow. Never before had it occurred to me to roast fennel, in the manner of a gratin, but now that I have been eating it this way all week, I am having trouble thinking of any other way to consume this pert, crispy vegetable—will I look at the raw shavings in my salad forever after and think only of the need for breadcrumbs and rosemary oil?
The recipe is classic and simple, and easy enough to pull together on a weeknight and still manage to be eating by 7 pm. You quickly blanche sliced fennel (easier than it seems like it will be), then spoon it into a baking dish, after which you drizzle olive oil that has been mixed with crushed fennel seeds, rosemary, mashed garlic, and red pepper flakes. It’s already glorious in my view. But then you add sliced fresh mozzarella, fresh homemade bread crumbs (I simply tore up the heel of a baguette), and then finish the dish with more of the oil and a generous sprinkling of Parmesan.
I just sighed out loud at the mere thought of it.
Out it comes in 25 or 30 minutes, bubbling and milky, crisp and warm, ready to be the main star of your event, also known unremarkably as “dinner.” But with Fennel al Forno, it seems like so much more: a romantic escapade in an Italian trattoria? a jaunt at a French bistro with a handsome man named Xavier?
The best part: You get to eat this creation all week long if you are selfish and decide to keep it all to yourself, which is sometimes the best Valentine’s present that you can get: nourishment, elegance, satisfaction, love of fennel, excitement—and all on an ordinary Tuesday.
Fennel al Forno (ever-so-slightly adapted from David Tanis)
4 medium fennel bulbs, tops removed, a few fronds set aside
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, roughly crushed with a knife
3 medium garlic cloves
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon chopped rosemary plus 1 teaspoon rosemary leaves
1/2 pound (or slightly under) sliced fresh mozzarella
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1/4 to 1/2 cup of baguette torn into small pieces to make a large, rustic breadcrumb
Fennel fronds for garnish
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Lightly oil a medium-sized baking dish with olive oil (I used an 11-inch tart dish).
Trim and prepare the fennel: cut off tops, shave off any tough outer skin from the first layer, wash, and slice into 1/2 inch thick slices (don’t worry about the core, it melts away into soft, roasted bliss).
Boil the fennel in the salted water for 1 minute (I left mine for 2-3 (oops!) but it didn’t matter). Drain the fennel, rinse with cold water until the fennel cools, and drain on paper towels until dry. Place the fennel in a baking dish to a thickness of about 1 1/2 inches. Season the fennel with salt and black pepper and toss gently.
Mash the garlic against the side of a knife with a little salt until it achieves a rough paste. Set aside. Crush the fennel seeds crudely with a knife (the original recipe calls for these to be crushed somewhat finely, but I didn’t bother with this). Add the garlic and the fennel to a bowl with the olive oil and stir in the chopped rosemary and the red pepper flakes. (Stop for a moment to note the delicious fragrance of this combination, and dream of other things that it could be drizzled on…)
Drizzle half of the olive oil mixture over the fennel. Scatter the whole rosemary leaves over. Top with the sliced mozzarella in a single layer. Sprinkle with the torn baguette breadcrumbs. Drizzle over the remaining oil mixture and finish with a sprinkling of Parmesan (I think I used slightly less than the recommended 1/2 cup).
Bake in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes until the top is browned and the juices are bubbling.
Garnish with fennel fronds.
Eat with delight and gusto.
Notes: I’ve upped the olive oil by one tablespoon, as I found the amount to be somewhat scant—just use your judgment. The fennel should glisten somewhat, but it does not need to be evenly coated, much to my surprise. I’ve also halved the amount of the rosemary, as I was concerned about being overwhelmed by it—I loved it this way, with half the original amount, but it would probably also be good with more rosemary, if desired. I believe that I used less Parmesan, but this also should be gauged according to the size of your dish and personal preference. The recipe need not be followed precisely—it will be delicious in any case.