No one is happier than us that spring has arrived, but the new season does provide a few cooking challenges. After a full winter of kale, we tend to go overboard with spring produce at the farmers market- so we have piles of asparagus, artichokes and fennel to cook every week. We are OK with the asparagus and artichokes, we have plenty of good recipes for those veggies. But what are we supposed to do with all this fennel?
If you don’t cook with fennel, it is a large, layered white bulb with a fluffy green top. It is in season spring and early summer (there is also a fall crop in some regions). Fennel has a crisp texture and tastes like licorice, or “anise”, if you want to be nice. With anise as the lead flavor of fennel, it becomes a challenge to find a compelling use for the stuff. Fennel is tasty shaved on salads or as a minor component in fish stews, but if you go a bit crazy and buy four bulbs, you need a dish that uses it all. And it would be nice if it actually tasted good.
Happily, we found a dish that doesn’t just use up the fennel, it really rocks- you will actually want to buy fennel on a regular basis. And it is easy, too. You simply caramelize the fennel. That’s it. Fennel, olive oil, salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon. A sharp knife, a hot pan and 20 minutes. And you suddenly get a great snack or side dish that features sweet, crispy fennel with just a nice touch of the anise flavor.
How did we find this recipe? We went to the experts. We looked at Judy Rodgers’ “Zuni Cafe Cookbook”, “The Victory Garden Cookbook” and Alice Waters’ “Chez Panisse Vegetables” looking for a good fennel recipe. The one conclusion they all shared was that deep-fried fennel (usually part of an Italian “fritti” dish) is super-tasty, sweetens the fennel and softens the anise flavor. But if you are like us, you are not ready to make deep-fried dishes every day. Luckily, Carolyn noticed that Alice Waters did provide a recipe for caramelizing the fennel in a hot skillet with a small amount of oil, so we decided to try it.
All you do with the fennel is trim the top and bottom from the fennel bulbs, slice it thin (but nothing crazy), and remove the cores. As for cooking, you will need a large skillet, ¼ a cup of good olive oil and medium high heat. You then cook the fennel in the hot oil, making sure to brown the fennel, NOT steam it. When the fennel slices are golden brown, about 10-12 minutes, you are done. Season with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon. Serve as a snack or side dish. Life should always be this easy.
As for the flavor of the dish, it is slightly sweet with just a pleasant touch of anise flavor. Both Carolyn and I found the flavor and texture reminiscent of fried eggplant, a dish we eat whenever we can. We added the lemon to the recipe and it provides some nice sourness and acidity to play with the suddenly sweet fennel. We both love the dish as a snack, but would also serve caramelized fennel as a side dish with fish or chicken. Carolyn thinks it is the best spring vegetable dish we’ve made, I still like the asparagus and rice soup a touch more, but I would be happy to make this fennel dish anytime.
(Adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables)
Notes Before You Start:
- The key to this dish is to brown, not steam, the fennel. Keep the pan hot and spread out the fennel, no crowding. Cook in batches if necessary- the only problem will be that you will finish the first batch before the next batch is done. Yes, this dish is that good.
What You Get: A great fennel recipe. Really.
What You Need: No special equipment is required.
How Long: 20 minutes, maybe more if cooking in batches. 5 minutes of prep and 15 minutes of cooking. You can make this dish any time.
(Serves 4 as a side dish)
- 2 Large fennel bulbs
- ¼ Cup olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- ½ Lemon
- Using a very sharp knife, cut the top and bottom from the fennel bulbs and then remove tough or bruised outer layers. You will end up with a bulb about the size of your fist.
- Slice the bulbs in half and then remove the cores from the fennel. Then cut the fennel lengthwise into 1/8 inch slices (it is ok if a little thicker).
- Heat a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the olive oil and then the fennel slices. Spread the fennel out in the pan to encourage browning.
- Cook for 10-12 minutes, flipping the fennel slices every few minutes, until golden brown.
- Remove the fennel from the pan and drain off any excess oil. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice, to taste. Serve.