I keep on seeing stunted specimens of fennel for sale in stalls at the Queen Victoria Market (Australia).
It is easy to strike up a conversation while standing in front of a stall and the buyer was surprised when I told her that fennel can also be cooked.
This dish is very versatile. I have presented it hot and cold, as a contorno (side vegetable dish) and as an antipasto. The fennel can be cooked beforehand and left until you are ready to assemble the dish or alternatively the tortino can be prepared and stored in the fridge (for 1-2 days).
The following recipe is for 6-8 people.
fennel bulbs, (to weigh 1k)
parsley, 1 cup, chopped finely
oregano, dried, ½ tablespoon.
garlic, 2 cloves finely chopped
pecorino, 1 cup grated
extra virgin olive oil, about ¾ cup to sauté the fennel and some more to coat the oven dish and to drizzle on top of the ingredients.
salt and pepper,
coarse breadcrumbs, about 2 cups made from 1-3 day old, quality bread. This will be used to scatter over the sides and bottom of the oven dish and between the layers of fennel.
Optional – Use a little wine or stock, rather than water, to add to the fennel as it cooks (modern rather than traditional).
Preheat the oven to 180C
Slice the fennel lengthwise and thinly. If possible add the soft green fonts chopped finely, as these will add colour and flavour.
Sauté the onion in the extra virgin olive oil, then add the fennel until it is slightly softened and coloured.
Select an oven dish, which will accommodate all of your ingredients (I use a pan which is about 10 cm deep).
Oil a baking dish (I use glass or ceramic ). Lard instead of olive oil was common in many of the older traditional recipes.
Sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs over the greased surface of the baking dish (be generous, as this process will prevent total sticking of the ingredients).
Mix the remaining breadcrumbs with the parsley, grated cheese and garlic. Begin with a layer of the fennel, then the breadcrumb mixture and repeat until you have used up all of the ingredients and you have at least 4 layers. Finish off with the bread mixture.
Compress the layers with your hands and top with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil .
Cover with a heavy lid or a layer of foil with a weight on top so as to keep all of the layers compressed. To prevent sticking, my Sicilian grandmother used an ovenproof, terracotta plate as the weight.
Place the dish into a preheated oven 180 C for about 40-50 mins.
Remove the cover, drizzle with more extra virgin olive oil and bake for a further 10 minutes until it has a golden crust and the liquid has evaporated.