Most people recognize the name, fennel or anise, and associate it with licorice or the small seeds found in Italian sausage. Most people have even seen it, they walk right past it on their way through the produce aisle and don’t even notice. Perhaps they think it is just some exotic celery or maybe just some onion-like variety of dill. These people are missing a truly great vegetable that is uniquely versatile and delicious. I find it fascinating that so many vegetables that frequent a Mediterranean table can stand alone on a plate to make a satisfying meal with very few adornments; made even more so by the fact that so few in this country know what to do with them.
Fennel does not claim to be a superfood (an overused buzz-word IMHO), but it is a very nutritious vegetable and a good source of dietary fiber (nutritional data here). The appeal of fennel is its unique flavor and its versatility. It is excellent raw as part of a crudite or sliced thin and tossed in a lemon and extra virgin olive oil citronette with just a hint of garlic (recipe here). One could make a slaw with it which is excellent. It adds an amazing flavor to chicken stock (recipe here) as part of the aromatic vegetables. Finally, my favorite way to eat it when it is still cold outside is braised. We have stopped braising vegetables in this country largely because braising is associated with long cooking time or people just don’t think of doing it. My classical culinary education was rich with braised leeks, celery and many other vegetables so it is something I am not afraid of. Vegetables do not need to be braised for two or more hours the way meats do, they need only about one half hour to develop a beautiful rich flavor and succulent texture. For this recipe I do recommend a home made stock because it brings so much flavor to the dish that the boxed stocks (lets call them dish water for arguments sake) just don’t have. You might be better off with a Better than Bouillon product than any boxed stock that I have tasted (unsolicited quasi-endorsement, I do have some in my refrigerator that I bought at my local supermarket and I do not get any money or compensation from anyone regarding this product. I still maintain that making your own is better from a flavor standpoint.) My son just came up to me and said, “make more braised fennel”. That is how good it is.
3 each fennel bulb, trimmed, cut quarters, leave the core on
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots, peeled and minced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
4 oz mushrooms, brushed clean and quartered
sea salt and freshly grated black pepper to taste
¼ cup dry white wine
1 cup fresh, homemade stock (use your favorite)
1-2 Tbsp unsalted butter (optional)
freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional, but recommended)
Heat braising pan or dutch oven (or other relatively shallow pan with a tight fitting lid) over medium heat. When heat can be felt coming through the bottom of the pan when holding your hand 1 inch away add the oil. Swirl the pan to coat the bottom with oil. Add the shallots and garlic allowing them to cook for a minute or two until translucent. Add the mushrooms stirring them until they begin to exude some of their moisture. Add the fennel to the pan so that each piece has contact with the bottom of the pan. Season lightly with salt and pepper, deglaze the pan with the wine allowing most of the alcohol to evaporate before adding the stock. Once the stock has been added bring to a boil and cover and reduce to a simmer. Simmer covered for 15-20 minutes before checking to see if they are done. The fennel should be tender but not falling apart. Remove the fennel to a heated serving platter then finish the sauce. Bring back to a hard boil and reduce almost to a syrup (the juices in the pan should be reduced by about 75%) then turn off the heat, mount the sauce with a little butter or extra virgin olive oil. To “mount” a sauce with butter is to lighten and emulsify it with a little room-temperature butter to lift the flavor and give the sauce a richer consistency and a beautiful sheen by swirling it into the sauce (Beurre monté). A little extra virgin olive oil can do the same thing, although, it won’t truly be emulsified. Pour the sauce over the fennel. To serve shave or grate Parmigiano-Reggiano onto each piece.
I like this dish as a main course for a simple dinner, or a vegetable course for a much fancier affair. The sauce picks up the flavor of the mushrooms, the fennel and whatever stock you are using. I think it is fantastic. For added punch you could dust with fennel pollen before the cheese goes on (available in specialty markets or here). This dish may change the way you think about vegetables, Enjoy!