Despite the fact it’s taken me almost two full years to finally tell you about this fennel, it’s been one of those ‘secret weapon’ recipes of sort; the type I pull out time and time again when I am in need of something simple, yet stunning, and crave something that is familiar and consistent at the same time.
Thank goodness it tastes so much better than it looks.
In truth, I’ve photographed this recipe on numerous occasions now, and each time with great intentions of both posting and waxing poetic about it. Unfailingly, I’ve uploaded the pictures, and squinted and squirmed. No matter in which light, no matter at what angle, and with absolutely zero positive correlation to the amount of wine I’d consumed, I just could not make the photos look appetizing.
Each time I’d find myself gazing upon a tangled and snarled mire of brownish-yellow mush, and fear that I would somehow come off as inauthentic or desperate whilst singing the praises of something that was just so…..comely.
After making this dish to much fanfare for two Thanksgiving dinners, one Easter brunch, and countless nights with friends at home, I’ve decided that no matter how warty this unsightly little fennel dish’s nose is, I don’t care — it’s just too perfect not to share.
Though fennel is not generally a staple in the dinner repertoire of most Americans, I suspect that’s mostly due to a popular aversion to it’s anise or “black licorice” flavor, as well as a bit of trepidation surrounding exactly how to deal with the lacy frond-tipped vegetable. In it’s raw state, fennel indeed has a bracing and bold flavor that is instantly reminiscent of black gumdrops — which indeed some find to be one of it’s most appealing qualities, but for others it’s a completely understandable taste to shy away from. Even licorice addicts (like me) usually need to slice the fennel bulb thinly or take it in small quantities to find it palatable and keep it from becoming overwhelming.
But this preparation – browning and then braising the fibrous bulbs before finishing them off with a light simmer in cream and with a dusting of lemon zest – is a way to win over even the most hardened of fennel-skeptic’s hearts. The caramelized edges of the bulb take on a sweet and almost onion-y flavor, and as the fennel braises it’s intense flavor dissipates into something that becomes the faintest whisper of what it once was. Instead of accosting you with pungent licorice, the fennel mellows into something melting, tender, and sweet, and the cream settles in and around each nested bit of bulb while thickening into a luxurious and decadent sauce.
The lemon zest cuts through the silken sauce, adding a sprightly lightness that complements the herbal notes of the fennel without picking any bit of an argument. The best part about this is not only that it’s dead simple, but that I’ve found it’s nearly season-less. In Spring and Summer it’s a welcomed bit of heft alongside a whole grilled fish, or chopped and tucked amongst strands of skinny pasta, and in Fall and Winter it’s just the thing to cozy up to a grilled steak or curl around a roasted chicken, which is exactly how I served this on one of our first blustery and gray October evening’s last week.
Looks be damned, you’ve got to trust me on this one.
Over the years, I have swapped out fresh lemon juice for lemon zest; I find that the flavor is cleaner and brighter. I have also increased the amount of cream called for to 1/3 cup from the original 2-4 Tbsp; I like there to be a bit more of this delicious sauce to go around.
4 fennel bulbs
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 – 1/2 cup water
1/3 cup heavy cream
the zest of one lemon
Cut the stalks and fronds of the fennel off right where they grow out of the bulb. (Save some of the lacy fronds for garnish or toss them into a salad.) Remove any bruised or extremely tough outer leaves and trim the bottom to remove any browned or overly thick bits. Cut the fennel into vertical quarters, making sure there is a bit of the core in each piece to keep them intact.
Melt the butter and olive oil in a heavy and large (~12-inch) skillet that has a well-fitting lid. Add the fennel, arranging them so that they are all in a single layer and one of each of the quarter’s cut sides is facing down. Cook gently over medium heat until browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Do not stir the fennel: you want to get a nice brown and caramelized color going on the cut side. Gently turn the fennel using a pair of tongs, and brown the other side.
Sprinkle a good pinch of salt over the top of the browned fennel. Add about 1/4 cup of water, and quickly cover the pan. Turn down the heat and braise the fennel until it is very soft and most of the water has evaporated (about 20 minutes.) Check on occasion and add a little more water if the fennel isn’t completely soft.
When the fennel is completely tender when you prick it with a knife, remove the lid and pour in the cream. Simmer gently, tossing the fennel in the simmering cream, until the cream starts to thicken and glazes the fennel, about 5 minutes. Add the lemon zest, and toss the fennel again. Taste, and adjust for more salt as needed. Serve hot as a side dish or a first course.