This Easy, Make-Ahead Dish Delivers Fen-tastic Flavor
Every January, I’m eager to eat my vegetables. After an extended holiday blowout — which always seems to begin around Halloween and continue through New Year’s Day — I’m ready to seek out food that’s lighter and healthier. Time to cut down on the sweets, and begin eating cleaner.
Fennel fits the bill wonderfully: It’s nutritious and low in calories, but it also offers flavor that won’t quit. It’s often served raw in salads. When cooked, though, it turns into another veggie entirely. In fact, the flavor mellows and becomes almost sweet.
As noted last week in our post on Fennel Soup with Shrimp and Beans, fennel can be the star of the show. But it also makes an excellent side dish. Braised fennel is a perfect accompaniment to roast pork or poultry, and it pairs well with almost any fish you can imagine. And although it’s terrific hot from the oven, it’s just as good — maybe even better! — when served at room temperature. So it’s a perfect make-ahead dish for a big dinner.
Everyone at your table (kids included) will lap this up. Don’t you love January?
Recipe: Braised Fennel
You can cook fennel the same way you’d prepare any vegetable (including steaming or sautéing), but I think it’s particularly succulent when braised. Braise it on top of the stove if you want, though I prefer to use the oven. I just set the timer and forget about it as the oven heat does it stuff.
To braise fennel, place it in a container with a bit of liquid and tightly cover it. The simmering liquid and steam will cook and flavor the fennel until it becomes meltingly tender. If you use a gratin pan or baking dish (as I do in this recipe), you can cover it with aluminum foil.
Most recipes for braising fennel are more or less the same, but I particularly like the one in Molly Stevens’ All About Braising, and my recipe is adapted from hers. She has some twists that I particularly like. She begins by browning the fennel, so it has good color. (If you don’t want to bother with this, you can run the fennel under the broiler for a couple of minutes after it’s cooked.) She also adds some extra flavoring ingredients, including anchovies.
Many people don’t like anchovies (or think they don't), but no need to worry: You won’t taste the anchovy in the finished dish (and you’ll barely notice its flavor in the braising liquid, if you taste it at all). Anchovy, by the way, is a great “secret ingredient.” It adds tremendous background flavor, but when used correctly, you’ll never notice it’s there. It’s like salt — if you taste it, you’ve used too much. But if you’re worried that you might not like the dish with anchovies, just skip them; the fennel will still be mighty tasty.
This recipe serves 4 to 6 (as a side dish), and it’s quite easy to scale up (or down) if desired. Active prep time is about 15 minutes, braising time an hour to hour and a quarter.
Well-wrapped leftovers will keep for a few days in the refrigerator. They’re good cold (warm them to room temperature first) or you can heat them in the microwave or oven.
- ~2 pounds of trimmed fennel bulbs, plus green tops for garnish (about 3 medium; discard stalk or save for stock)
- 1 tablespoon pure olive oil (the cheap stuff)
- salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- ½ teaspoon fennel seeds (optional; see Notes for substitution)
- ½ teaspoon coriander seeds (optional)
- 2 - 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced fine
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- 3 or 4 fillets of anchovies, drained (optional; see Note above if the idea of anchovies turns you off)
- ½ cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
- ½ cup chicken or vegetable stock
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Rinse off the fennel and remove the stalks and green tops. Set aside the green fuzzy fronds for garnish (optional). Discard stalks or save for making stock. Using a sharp knife or vegetable peeler, slice off the root end of the bulbs. Cut or peel off the outer part of the bulbs if they’re tough. Cut fennel bulbs in half through the poles (lengthwise), then cut in half again so that each bulb is quartered. (If your bulbs are particularly large, you can cut them into sixths.)
- Place large frying pan on medium-high heat. When warm, add the oil. Let the oil get hot (it’ll shimmer — this will take just a few seconds) and immediately add the fennel quarters, placing them flat side down. Reduce heat to medium. Brown fennel for 3 minutes (don’t shake or disturb while browning).
- At the three-minute mark, lift the edge of 1 or 2 fennel quarters to see how they’re browning (use a spatula or tongs). They’ll be speckled, not evenly brown. Brown for another minute if need be.
- When browned on one side, turn the fennel over and brown for another three minutes. At the end of that time, place the fennel in a gratin pan or baking dish. (You want to use one that’s just large enough to hold the fennel quarters in one layer without spaces between them; it’s OK to squish the pieces together). Lightly season with salt and pepper.
- Meanwhile, if you wish (this is an optional step), place the fennel and coriander seeds in a microwave-safe dish (like a pie plate) and nuke them for about a minute, or until the spices begin to smell fragrant.
- Cool the spices slightly, then crush with a mortar and pestle or with the back of a spoon.
- Add the crushed fennel and coriander seeds to a small saucepan. Peel and mince garlic, and add that.
- Add the dried thyme and the optional drained anchovies (if using) to the saucepan. With a spoon, crush the mix of anchovies, thyme, garlic, fennel seeds, and coriander seeds against the bottom of the pan (make a bit of a paste). Add the wine or vermouth, bring to a boil, and reduce by half (2 or 3 minutes).
- Add the chicken or vegetable stock to the sauce pan and bring to a boil.
- Pour the stock mixture over the fennel quarters in the gratin or baking dish. Cover tightly with aluminum foil, and place on the middle rack of the oven. Set timer for 50 minutes.
- When the timer goes off, test the fennel for doneness (slide a paring knife into the core of a fennel quarter — you should feel no resistance). If the fennel needs to cook a bit longer (it probably will), continue braising. Check every 5 minutes until the fennel is done (this usually takes no more than an additional 15 or so minutes).
- Remove the fennel from the oven and serve at once, or let cool and serve at room temperature. You can make this dish a day ahead if you wish. In which case, refrigerate overnight. Then, if serving at room temperature, remove it from the fridge an hour before serving. If serving hot, warm it in a 350-degree F oven for 15 to 20 minutes or so (or you can use the microwave).
- Right before serving, roughly chop some of the reserved green fennel frond, and use for garnish (optional).
- Stevens adds half a cup of olives to her recipe (she sprinkles them on top of the fennel quarters in Step 5). Olives (or capers) combine wonderfully with fennel, and are definitely worth trying. But I like this dish better without them.
- You don’t have to brown the fennel if you don’t want (Steps 3 & 4). Instead, you can just oil the baking dish, put the fennel in it, season, and proceed with the recipe. The fennel won’t color as much when braising, but if you want to add more color after it’s done, you can just run it under the broiler for a few minutes.
- If you don’t have fennel seed on hand, you can substitute a couple of teaspoons of Pernod or another anise-flavored liqueur. Add it to the wine mixture when you add the stock in Step 10.
- BTW, browning fennel and coriander seed in the microwave is a quick and easy way of toasting them. You could also do this in a dry skillet on the stove top. Why toast your spices? Because it releases some of the flavor and aroma, making them more effective as flavorings.
- This dish is fantastic with Roast Pork. Or pork prepared any way. For a particularly innovative recipe, check out John’s post from the blog, From the Bartolini Kitchens where he makes Porchetta stuffed with fennel fronds.
- This dish also pairs well with poultry and with most fish and shellfish.
- BTW, the braising liquid from the fennel makes a nice little sauce on pork and poultry.
- If you elect to serve this dish at room temperature, it makes an excellent first course. Or you can include it on an antipasto platter (in that case, I would include the olives when making this).
- In Italy, fennel is often served raw (usually just sprinkled with salt or a light dressing).
“More, please.” Mrs. Kitchen Riffs nodded at the fennel, nudging her plate across the table.
“Good stuff, isn’t it?” I said, dishing up another serving.
“Awesome,” she replied. “We really need to eat more of this.”
“We do,” I agreed. "It’s weird the habits we get into — some foods we eat often, others rarely or never.”
“Yeah,” she nodded. “Like sweet potatoes. We used to eat them only at Thanksgiving, now we’re eating them all the time.”
“Or Belgian endive,” I said. “We only ate it in restaurants until I finally decided to cook it at home last year.”
I dished up another helping for myself. “Every January and February, I like to pick a veggie we rarely use, and learn new recipes that feature it.”
“So this year’s mystery veggie is fennel?” asked Mrs K R.
“You guessed it! Last week we did that terrific Fennel Soup with Shrimp and Beans. And now this wonderful braised fennel dish. I’ve got another recipe or two that we’ll feature in a few weeks.”
“A few weeks? I can’t wait that long!” complained Mrs K R.
I nodded at the fennel dish. “There’s always thirds.”
You may also enjoy reading about:
Fennel Soup with Shrimp and Beans
Sweet Potato Soup with Chilies and Corn
Roast Sweet Potatoes
Sweet Potatoes in Curry Sauce
Red-Braised Beans and Sweet Potatoes
Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans
Roast Belgian Endive
Braised Belgian Endive
Roast Brussels Sprouts
Eating Your Vegetables