One of the things that surprises most English-speaking tourists, when coming to Italy for the first time, is that in restaurants main dishes don’t come with vegetables. That’s not to say that Italians don’t eat vegetables with main dishes, but you have to order them separately. You find them on the menu in a little section of their own called contorno, which translates approximately as side dish.
Because they are designed to be generic, contorni are often very basic, such as roast potatoes, or steamed broccoli. In most restaurants they serve whatever vegetable is in season. Because contorni are not designed to go with any dish in particular, sometimes they become almost little dishes in their own right.
When I was shopping at the market the other day, a box of fennel bulbs caught my eye and I was persuaded to take them home with the idea of making a fennel risotto. However, there are enough to make twenty risotti so I have been thinking of other things to do with them and came up with this simple but delicious contorno. It would go perfectly with grilled meat, or on its own for a light lunch. It can be made vegetarian by missing out the pancetta and using a vegetarian cheese.
Serves: 4 as a side; 2 as a main
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes
Total time: 50 minutes
2 whole fennel bulbs
150 g (5 ounces) smoked pancetta, cubed
100g (3 1/2 ounces) parmigiano reggiano, grated
- Pre-heat the oven to 190° C (375° F).
- Remove the fronds from the fennel bulbs and cut them in half with a sharp knife. Keep some of the green leaves for garnish.
- Oil an oven dish and then place the fennel bulbs in it, cut side up. You might need to cut a small piece off the underside in order to make them stand straight.
- Drizzle the bulbs with a little oil and season with salt and pepper.
- Place the pancetta on each piece of fennel in equal proportions.
- Sprinkle each piece with fresh thyme.
- Completely cover the surface of each piece of fennel with the parmigiano reggiano.
- Bake for about 45 minutes or until you can stick a sharp knife easily into the bulbs. Leave to cool for a few minutes before serving. Garnish with a few of the finely chopped fennel leaves.