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Fennel and white beans bake into warming side dish

Recipe: Creamy casserole ideal for a winter meal

Out of the oven and topped with fresh fennel fronds, this casserole works as a vegetarian entree or can serve as a side dish to any meat.

Out of the oven and topped with fresh fennel fronds, this casserole works as a vegetarian entree or can serve as a side dish to any meat. Kathy Morrison

Fennel is one of those plants that can be categorized as a vegetable, herb or spice, depending on which part is used.  The bulb can be sliced into salads raw, or sautéed or baked, while the fronds can add depth to salads, and the seeds are used in many savory cooked dishes. 

Ingredients on a countertop including two fennel bulbs
Fennel, lemon and garlic will flavor those beans.

My farm box fennel inspired a hunt for new recipes, and the one here (found on the New York Times Cooking site) was a perfect warming combination for these cold February nights. The raw veggie is mildly licorice-tasting, but baked it mellows considerably. We enjoyed the casserole alongside grilled pork chops and steamed broccoli, but the beans-fennel-cheese combo would be an excellent vegetarian entree, served with a green salad and some whole wheat bread.

Notes: I used one can of cannellini beans and one of navy beans, since either works. I think the smaller beans puree more easily, but go with what you have. Also, I forgot to add the Parmesan shreds to the bread-crumb topping before putting it on the beans, so I sprinkled it on top, which worked just fine. The fennel-fronds garnish adds visual interest and a flavorful zing to the dish.

Any white bean and fennel casserole

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients:

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 large fennel bulbs

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 leek, white and light green part only, trimmed and thinly sliced, optional

2 (14-ounce) cans white beans, such as cannellini, navy or great Northern

1/2 cup heavy cream, half and half or whole milk

Fennel slices being sauteed
Sauté the fennel to soften.

Zest from 1 lemon, divided

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup panko bread crumbs

1/2 cup or more grated or shredded Parmesan cheese

Instructions:

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Trim the stalks and tough root end from the fennel bulb, reserving some of the fresh fronds for garnish. Cut the bulbs in half lengthwise, then in thin slices across.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, heavy oven-safe skillet over medium heat. Add the sliced fennel, seasoning with salt and pepper, and sauté until softened but not limp, 10-12 minutes. Stir in the garlic and, if using, the leek, and cook, stirring, another 1 or 2 minutes.

To prepare the sauce, pour 1 can of beans and its liquid into a blender. Pour in the cream or milk, 2 tablespoons olive oil, the lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon of the lemon zest. Purée until smooth. 

Drain and rinse the other can of beans in a colander. Stir the rinsed beans and the puréed mixture into the skillet with the cooked fennel. Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper.

For the topping: Place the panko crumbs in a small bowl with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Stir in the remaining lemon zest, the Parmesan and more pepper, and toss to coat. Sprinkle the crumb mixture over the beans and fennel in the pan.

Bubbling casserole in a cast iron pan on an oven rack
Bubbling and golden, ready to come out of the oven.

Bake the casserole until bubbling and golden on top,  about 15 minutes. (Broil the top 1-2 minutes more if you want it crisper.) Roughly chop the reserved fennel fronds, sprinkle them over the casserole, and serve.

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Garden Checklist for week of May 19

Temperatures will be a bit higher than normal in the afternoons this week. Take care of chores early in the day – then enjoy the afternoon. It’s time to smell the roses.

* Plant, plant, plant! It’s prime planting season in the Sacramento area. If you haven’t already, it’s time to set out those tomato transplants along with peppers and eggplants. Pinch off any flowers on new transplants to make them concentrate on establishing roots instead of setting premature fruit.

* Direct-seed melons, cucumbers, summer squash, corn, radishes, pumpkins and annual herbs such as basil.

* Harvest cabbage, lettuce, peas and green onions.

* In the flower garden, direct-seed sunflowers, cosmos, salvia, zinnias, marigolds, celosia and asters.

* Plant dahlia tubers. Other perennials to set out include verbena, coreopsis, coneflower and astilbe.

* Transplant petunias, marigolds and perennial flowers such as astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia and verbena.

* Keep an eye out for slugs, snails, earwigs and aphids that want to dine on tender new growth.

* Feed summer bloomers with a balanced fertilizer.

* For continued bloom, cut off spent flowers on roses as well as other flowering plants.

* Don’t forget to water. Seedlings need moisture. Deep watering will help build strong roots and healthy plants.

* Add mulch to the garden to help keep that precious water from evaporating. Mulch also cuts down on weeds. But don’t let it mound around the stems or trunks of trees or shrubs. Leave about a 6-inch to 1-foot circle to avoid crown rot or other problems.

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