Bis, Bis! Fennel

February 19, 2010

Fennel, which is the spice for Wednesdays, the day of averages, of middle-aged people. . . . Fennel . . . smelling of changes to come.
~Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, from The Mistress of Spices

In life, beware of haggard bulbs. Look for fennel that is clean, firm and solid, without signs of splitting, bruising or spotting. The bulbs should be whitish or pale green in color, and the stalks should be relatively straight and closely superimposed around the bulb. Both the stalks and the leaves should be green in color. There should be no signs of flowering buds as this suggests that it is past its prime. Fresh fennel should have a fragrant, subtle aroma with hints of anise.

Once the somewhat unwieldy fennel is home, cut off the stalks slicing close to the top of the bulb. Then, peel any stringy fibers off the outer layer of the bulb with a sharp paring knife. If the bulb is bruised or seems very tough, remove the outer layer altogether. The very bottom of the bulb may be tough and slightly dirty in comparison to the greenish-tinged whiteness of the bulb itself, so thinly slice or shave it off with a chef’s knife.

If slicing the bulb for a recipe, remove the core, but leave it intact for wedges as the core will keep the individual layers together. Always save the lacy fronds for garnish and refrigerate the stalks for making stock.

These two sumptuous sides will pair well with hearty winter roast or braised poultry, beef or lamb. Maybe not centerstage, but this is food that makes you smile inside out; so often the supporting cast steals the show.

MASHED POTATOES & ROASTED FENNEL PUREE

3-4 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed of stems and fronds, cut into 8 wedges
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3 lb russet potatoes, peeled and roughly cut into chunks
1/2 C milk, warmed
1 C heavy whipping cream, warmed
6 T unsalted butter
Freshly ground white pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 F

Coat fennel with olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Line a baking dish with aluminum foil. Arrange fennel in dish and roast for 30-40 minutes, until the fennel softens and before it begins to caramelize. Allow to cool some. Transfer fennel wedges to food processor and blend until puréed. Set aside.

Place potatoes in a large heavy pot, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

When done, drain potatoes well, return to pot, add milk, cream fennel purée, butter, salt and peppers, mashing vigorously until almost smooth or smashed until slightly chunky—whatever whets your whistle that day. The butter, milk and cream amounts will likely need to be adjusted to suit the texture of your liking. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Lightly grate some parmigiano-reggiano over the top of each serving.

BRAISED FENNEL WITH CREAM

3 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed, and cut vertically into quarters

2 T unsalted butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 C vegetable broth or chicken stock
1/4 C heavy whipping cream
1 T fresh lemon juice

Melt the butter and olive oil in a large, heavy skillet. Add the fennel, arranging them in a single layer with cut sides are down. Cook gently over medium heat until browned, 5-8 minutes. Avoid the temptation to play with the fennel in the pan so they achieve a nice brown hue. Gently turn the fennel, and brown the other side.

Season with salt and pepper, add stock and cover pan. Turn down the heat and braise the fennel until it is very soft and most of the broth or stock has evaporated, about 20 minutes. Check on occasion and add a little more stock if the fennel is overly dry and not completely soft.

Remove the lid and pour in the cream. Simmer gently until the cream starts to thicken and glazes the fennel, about 5 minutes. Add the lemon juice, shaking the pan. Taste for seasoning.

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