Fennel, the licorice-tasting celery-like vegetable, has an important place in Italian cooking. Long thought to have medicinal properties, it is still eaten raw as a digestivo after meals, a practice my family continues today. In this recipe, it is blanketed in a simple cream sauce, topped with bread crumbs, and baked in the oven. You can assemble the dish ahead and bake it the next day.
2 medium bulbs fennel (about 2 pounds)
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons King Arthur™ Unbleached, All-Purpose Flour
1 3/4 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Fine sea salt to taste
1/2 cup toasted bread crumbs
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Remove the feathery leaves and tough stalks from the fennel. Wash the bulbs and cut each into quarters.
Fill a large pot with water, add 1 tablespoon salt, and bring to a boil. Add the fennel, cover, and cook for about 20 minutes, or until a knife can easily be inserted into the fennel. Drain in a colander.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour, whisking to a smooth paste, and cook for about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in the milk and cook, whisking until the sauce comes to a simmer and thickens. Remove from the heat and stir in the nutmeg and salt.
Spread a thin layer of the sauce in a 12 by 8-inch casserole dish. Add the fennel, cut sides down, in a single layer. Pour the remaining sauce over the fennel. Sprinkle the bread crumbs and cheese evenly over the top. Bake, uncovered, for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the sauce and cheese are lightly browned. Serve immediately.
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