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Sweet Stalk

February 16, 1995|STEVEN RAICHLEN

Many Americans live their entire lives without having tasted fennel. Gennaro Villella can hardly imagine a meal without it. The chef of the restaurant Fantino at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York City slices fennel into salads, serves it under carpaccio, simmers it in soups and bakes it with bechamel sauce. Come dessert time, the young Umbrian chef poaches fennel in sugar syrup, bakes it in pies and even freezes it into gelato.

Fennel is one of our most distinctive vegetables, a member of the carrot family with a large bulbous white base, crisp green stalks and feather-like leaves that resemble fresh dill. The flavor of fresh fennel is equally distinctive, combining a sweet, licorice-like flavor with the herbaceous crunch of romaine lettuce. Imagine a celery stalk dipped in anisette and you will get an idea of fennel.

This venerable vegetable is especially beloved in the Mediterranean. The ancient Romans ate it pickled; the Berbers of North Africa add it to their fiery spice paste; a bouillabaisse from Marseilles just wouldn't taste quite right without it. In the south of France, dried fennel stalks are used to flambe sea bass. Fennel seed is an indispensable ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder and Indian curry.

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In Shakespeare's day, fennel was a symbol of wanton sexuality. A 17th-Century physician, Nicholas Culpeper, prescribed a brew of fennel leaves and roots as a remedy for snake bites. The 19th-Century celebrity chef, Alexis Soyer, attributed to fennel the power to restore eyesight.

Modern-day Italians believe that fennel stimulates the appetite and aids digestion. "It keeps your mouth clean," explains chef Villella. "In my family we like to serve it at the beginning of a meal to whet your appetite and at the end of a meal to improve digestion." According to Villella, bread and sliced fennel is a popular country snack in Umbria. Thinly sliced fennel drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil makes a simple but elegant antipasto.

Fennel is available year-round, but somewhat irregularly. Given its capricious supply, I rarely plan menus around it, but buy it when I find it. Fresh fennel can be found at gourmet shops, specialty greengrocers and many supermarkets. Another good place to look for it is at Italian markets, where it goes by the name of finocchio . Sometimes it's also sold by the name of anise.

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When buying fennel, look for firm, compact, roundish bulbs that feel heavy in your hand when you lift them. The cut edges should look fresh, and the base should be free of blemishes or brown spots. Avoid bulbs with spreading leaves or that look unduly elongated: These are signs of over-ripeness. Villella favors small fennel bulbs over large ones and claims that fennel tastes best in autumn and winter.

Few vegetables can rival fennel's versatility in the kitchen. The bulb can be boiled, grilled, sauteed, stir-fried, braised or hollowed and stuffed. (Slice it in half lengthwise and hollow it with a melon baller.) Both the base and stalks can be thinly sliced and added raw to salads. The feathery leaves make an attractive garnish, not to mention an intensely flavored salad herb. According to Villella, fennel has a special affinity for fish.

To prepare fennel for cooking, remove the stalks and peel or cut off the exterior leaves covering the bulb. (These are often blemished and fibrous.) The fennel is now ready for boiling, chopping or slicing. Villella likes to simmer fennel in milk and water to cover. The milk prevents the fennel from discoloring. "Lengthy cooking helps bring out its sweetness," he observes.

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On the other end of the spectrum, Villella also serves a wonderful salad made of thinly sliced raw fennel tossed with extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, thinly shaved Parmesan cheese, salt and freshly ground pepper.

Below is a recipe for the fennel gratin that Villella serves at Fantino. It's guaranteed to make fennel a regular part of your diet--even if you're tasting it for the first time.

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Fennel gratin is a popular dish in Villella's native Umbria. I like to serve it as a wintry vegetable side dish or even a vegetarian entree.

GENNARO VILLELLA'S FENNEL GRATIN

1 large or 2 small fennel bulbs

2 cups milk

1 teaspoon salt

Bechamel Sauce

3 to 4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Trim stems, base and outside leaves off fennel. Cut bulb in half lengthwise. Place fennel in deep saucepan with milk, salt and enough water to completely cover fennel. Loosely cover pan. Gently simmer fennel until very tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Drain fennel. Thinly slice lengthwise. Set aside.

Pour 1/3 of Bechamel Sauce into lightly buttered 8x12-inch baking dish. Arrange half of fennel slices on top, slightly overlapping. Pour half of remaining sauce on top. Add remaining fennel and cover with remaining sauce. Sprinkle with cheese.

Bake gratin at 400 degrees until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Serve at once. Makes 4 servings.

Bechamel Sauce

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg or to taste

2 1/2 cups milk

1/2 small red onion, halved

Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

Melt butter in heavy saucepan. Stir in flour and nutmeg. Cook roux over medium-low heat 10 minutes, stirring often. Do not let brown. Remove pan from heat. Whisk in milk.

Increase heat to high and bring sauce to boil, whisking steadily. Reduce heat. Add onion and gently simmer until sauce is thick and well flavored, about 10 minutes. Sauce should thickly coat back of spoon. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Adjust seasonings to taste. Remove and discard onion.

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