Friday, October 23, 2009

Dare to Prepare - Fennel

A bulb of fennel looks very much like a “ball” of celery.  Fennel is often mislabeled “sweet anise,” in the supermarket causing those who don’t like the flavor of licorice to avoid it.   The confusion stems from the fact that both plants contain an essential oil of similar chemical composition and share a licorice-like flavor and aroma. The flavor of fennel, however, is sweeter and more delicate than anise and, when cooked, becomes even lighter and sweeter than in its raw state.   Fennel leaves are feathery and make a nice garnish or can be chopped and used as an herb.  The top stalks can be added to soups or stocks for seasoning,  but are generally too tough to eat.

The first fennel grown in the United States was grown in 1824 by Thomas Jefferson when he received a packet of seeds from the American Consul in Florence.  If you would like to grow fennel in your garden, be sure to choose Florence fennel for its edible bulb.  Common fennel will give you edible leaves, and eventually fennel seeds, but the rest of the plant will be too tough and stringy to eat.

To Choose: Someone once told me that fennel with a round bulb is female; flat is male.  Not sure if that’s true, I’ve not delved into the sex organs of fennel; but have found that the round bulbs are more tender and sweeter, so maybe that proves they are female.  The bulbs should be white, with crisp bright greens – no cuts or bruises.

To Prepare: Separate the top stalks and leaves by slicing across close to the bulb.  Trim the base of the bulb no more than is necessary, then quarter the bulb lengthwise.  Prepare according to your recipe.  If left exposed to air for too long it may discolor, so either rub the exposed parts with lemon juice or put it in cold water with a splash of vinegar.

Fennel is great raw, although the licorice flavor will be more prominent, or you can braise, roast or grill it.  It is lovely with fish and plays nicely with tomatoes, oranges, lemons, apples, walnuts and dill.

LindySez: Try it.  If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it again, I promise…

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Roasted Fennel

4 Servings
Ingredients:
2 medium fennel bulbs
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste
Preparation:
Heat oven to 375 F
Trim the fennel bulbs and blanch them in boiling water for 9 to 10 minutes.  Immediately plunge them into ice water to stop the cooking process.  Cut lengthwise into ¼ inch slices.
Brush the roasting pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil and arrange fennel slices in a single layer. Brush the tops with the remaining oil.
Roast 15 minutes, then turn.  Continue roasting another 15 minutes or until the slices can be easily pierced with a skewer and they are lightly browned.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve hot or at room temperature.
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Fennel – Carrot Confit

6 – 8 Servings

Ingredients:
2 medium fennel bulbs – halved, cored and cut into 1 inch pieces
1 pound carrots – peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
¼ cup olive oil – extra virgin preferred
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest (use only the yellow, none of the white pith as it is bitter)
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves- minced
2 cloves garlic – minced
Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:
Heat oven to 275 F.
In a large baking dish, toss the fennel with the carrots, olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, thyme leaves and garlic.  Season with salt and pepper.  Spread the vegetables evenly in the pan.  Cover tightly with foil and bake in oven for 2 hours.  The vegetables should be very tender.
Warm a 10 to 12 inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat.  Working in batches, add the vegetables and their juices and cook, stirring gently until slightly browned, about 8 minutes per batch.  Put in a warm serving dish and garnish with minced fennel fronds, if desired and serve.

Lindy’s party tip:  The carrots and fennel can be prepared and baked up to 2 days before.  Place covered in the refrigerator and then finish by frying them prior to serving.
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Chicken Thighs with Fennel, Lemon and Garlic

(Reprinted  from the Chronicle San Francisco Cookbook)
Serves 4 – 6

Michael Bauer devised this one-pot dish, inspired by Richard Olney.  Because of their meatiness and density, chicken thighs work much better than white meat for this recipe.  Slices of lemon are cooked in a fennel – and garlic-laced broth.  The lemon melts down, adding a lovely tart flavor.  If it’s too puckery, add a teaspoon or so of sugar.

Ingredients:
8 – 12 chicken thighs, bones and skinned
Flour
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ cups dry white wine
12 garlic cloves, quartered
1 lemon, peeled, seeded and sliced
3 fennel bulbs, sliced
Sugar to taste (optional)
Zest of 1 lemon, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fennel tops

Preparation:
Lightly coat the chicken with flour that has been well seasoned with salt and pepper.
Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the chicken and sauté until browned on all sides.  Remove the chicken from the pan: set aside.
Add the wine to the pan and simmer, scraping up all the browned bits on the bottom.  Add the garlic and lemon slices; let boil about 5 minutes.  Add the fennel, cover and cook about 10 minutes.  Stir well, and then return the chicken to the pan, placing it on the fennel.  Cover and simmer 30 minutes.
Lindy’s party tip: Can be prepared to this point 2 days ahead.  Cover and refrigerate.
Just before serving, taste the sauce.  If it’s too tart, add a little sugar.  If necessary, boil the sauce rapidly to reduce excess juices.  Remove the chicken from the pan.
Combine the zest and fennel tops and stir most of the mixture into the fennel, reserving a little for garnish.  Spoon the fennel onto serving plates and top with the chicken.  Garnish with the remaining lemon zest – fennel top mixture

Recommended Wine Varietals: A California or Italian Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio or a  California or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Why they work: First of all, Pinot Gris is the same grape as Pinot Grigio.  Where it is grown will tell us the wine’s style.  A California or Italian Pinot Gris will be on the crisp, more acidic side of the spectrum.  This works well with the lemony chicken.  The same holds true for the California and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.  The fresh high-toned acid will bring out the brightness of the dish.  Sauvignon Blancs are also known for their citrus fruits – lemon, lime, and grapefruit, which again works well with the lemony chicken, and the tropical fruits – pineapple and melon will complement the sweetness of the fennel.
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Halibut with Herbs and Fennel Tomato Sauce

Serves 4

Ingredients:
4 (4 – 6 ounce) halibut steaks or fillets
1 1/3 tablespoons marjoram, minced (if you don’t have marjoram, you could use oregano.  Marjoram is slightly sweeter and a little milder than is oregano, so use only 1 tablespoon oregano.)
1 1/3 tablespoons thyme, minced
1 teaspoon lemon zest (be sure to only use the yellow part, no white pith)
1 teaspoon orange zest (ditto as above only using the orange part, of course)
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced laterally
1 cup canned tomatoes, with juice
2 cups dry white wine
1/4 cup chopped kalamata olives
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil, or as needed
2 tablespoons basil leaves, thinly sliced (chiffonad)
2 tablespoons parsley, preferably Italian flat leaf, minced

Preparation:
In a small bowl combine the herbs and zests.  Sprinkle the fish with salt and pepper, then spread the herb mixture on one side.  Set- aside.
Put 1 tablespoon oil in a saute pan; when hot, add the fennel and cook until the fennel starts to brown on the edges, about 10 minutes.  Add the wine and cook until the wine is reduced by 1/2.  Add the tomatoes along with their juice;  use the back of a spoon to mash them slightly, simmer on medium-high heat until reduced by 1/2.  Reduce heat to low; add the olives and capers; simmer until the sauce is very thick.
In another skillet, heat the remaining oil.  When hot, add the fish herb side down.  Cook about 3 minutes; turn.  Add a little more oil to the pan if necessary; cook until the fish is just cooked; another 3 to 4 minutes.  Do not overcook the fish.  (This is one of the biggest mistakes people make when cooking fish is they overcook it and it gets all dry and yucky – keep the fish moist, cook only until it’s opaque.  If you cook it until it “flakes easily with a fork” you’ve already overcooked it.)
Place the fennel with sauce onto a warmed plate; place the fish, herb side up on top, sprinkle with basil and parsley.

Wine Recommendation: A fruity Merlot.  (What!  Red wine with fish?)

Why it Works: Merlot is generally softer and silkier than a Cabernet Sauvignon.  Its flavor profile is generally red fruit driven with undertones of black fruits.  Its characteristic soft tannis work well smoothing out the slightly acidic tomato sauce.

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