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Fennel Casserole

The increase in obesity among children and adolescents is one of the major public health challenges of our generation. It’s also one of my biggest challenges as a mother…getting my children to understand the importance vegetables play in their diet. The more you introduce children to the lesser known vegetables, the more receptive they will be to trying new things. The ingredient that elevates this casserole from ordinary to extraordinary is fennel. Over the past 3 years since I started writing this column, I’ve managed to share many recipes that have been part of my kitchen for better than 25 years…multiple generations even! I’ve been cooking with fennel for exactly 1 year! My good friend Rene introduced me to this often overlooked gem; in fact it’s one of the few vegetables that is still in season in the winter. When shopping for fennel, it’s best to look for firm, greenish-white bulbs that are not soft or brown. Fennel originated in Mediterranean kitchens and has been used for many years for both culinary and medicinal purposes around the world. It is high in potassium, and in some cultures, it is used to aid digestion by stimulating the secretion of gastric juices that help reduce inflammation of the stomach and intestines as well as help combat constipation. If that isn’t reason enough to give this veggie a second look, some research suggests that fennel seed extract can be protective against cancer.

This warm winter casserole makes good use of cold-weather vegetables in a soul warming béchamel sauce. A basic béchamel starts with a pat of butter and pinch of flour to make a roux. Add minced garlic just as you turn down the heat, and stir in half & half or your favorite plant-based milk, then simmer just a few minutes until the mixture thickens. A roux is a good base for many different casseroles and gratins and can be made in just minutes. Next time you’re thinking about a mac-and-cheese casserole, give this one a try instead. The asparagus and raisins make it fun for kids while the casserole-like béchamel will speak to the Berks County native in you…if you are still longing for the feel of mac-and-cheese, go ahead and throw some panko on top and bake it in the oven for 10 more minutes. You just might find your family enjoying this little slice of France. Thank you for introducing me to fennel, Rene!

Ingredients
1 package of egg noodles
1 cup of half and half (or plant-based milk)
2 cloves minced garlic
1 bunch asparagus, chop off grassy ends and slice
1 fennel bulb, shaved or sliced very thin
1 red onion, sliced very thin
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup grated reggiano parmesan cheese
2-3 cups mixed, grated cheeses (if you’re local to Berks County, get the “three cheese blend” which is already shredded and can be found with the Italian cheeses in the kiosk at Giant)
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs (if using to top)

Preparation
Cook the noodles according to package directions. I typically under cook by about 1-2 minutes so that the noodles are al dente. Prepare the béchamel sauce and then add the shredded cheeses to thicken. Combine with strained noodles and vegetables. I like to sauté my vegetables first, depending on the consistency that you like, you can also pulse the veggies together in a food processor, and then fold that mixture together with the béchamel. Top with breadcrumbs and bake for about 5-10 minutes until golden.

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