Nosh: Grilled Fennel with Orange and Parsley

Ahhh, the weather is warming up! Birds are singing, flowers are blooming, and spring is springing itself all over the place. This breezy, glorious weather also beckons us outside, making us think of back yard parties and long candle-lit summer nights with friends, after a feast that you’ve grilled outdoors. With this in mind, I’m offering up grilled fennel with orange and parsley. It’s one of my favorite grilled sides, one that’s easy and quick, and takes almost no skill to execute successfully. 

Ironically, I am not an outdoorsy girl (mosquitos love me) and I grill inside. Eh. Whatever works. (And, bonus! I do this all through the winter.) If you love to grill your food then invest in a grill pan; you won’t regret it. To the grilling purists who are apoplectic at the thought of taking it indoors, I apologize if I hurt your heart. But it won’t change me. Moving on.

I love the savory twist that comes from a fresh fennel plant. Yes, the seeds are pungent and taste of licorice. When fennel is raw the sharp licorice taste remains. Once it starts to cook, the flavor mellows into a sort of caramel-crisp-crunchy, mildly-anise-y flavor bomb that moves into your brain as one of those, “Oh, man, I don’t know when I’ve had this but I know I’ve always liked it!” sort of taste memories. There is much to love about a good bulb of fennel. And you can use all of it, bulb, stem and leaf, so none of it goes to waste. Extra-fun!

When you do cook it, bear in mind that one bulb will produce a tremendous amount of food. I’ve never needed more than one bulb when I cook for two people, and we always have leftovers. If you’re cooking for four, you might need to add in another bulb, but if there’s only two people to feed…here’s what I used:

  • 1 fresh fennel bulb, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 tsp dried rosemary (or other favorite herb)
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 1 Tablespoon orange zest
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped parsley

Put a grill pan on your stovetop and turn the burners on (or heat your grill) so it will be ready and waiting for the fennel. You’ll want it to get kind of hot, so a medium-to-medium-high heat will do nicely.

If any of the outside leaves of the fennel look gnarly or damaged, peel them off and throw them away. Cut fennel stalks and fronds off the bulb and save them for another use (think garnishes, or soup stocks). Cut the fennel bulb in half. You could cut the core out if you’d prefer. I usually cut the core because it’s a little tougher than the rest of the fennel, but if you don’t feel like it, it’s not a big deal. You’ll be cutting thin slices, it will all cook. Cut fennel into nice narrow strips and toss in a mixing bowl. Then add in rosemary, salt, pepper, and oil. Give it a stir.

Isn't it gorgeous?

Isn’t it gorgeous?

Turn fennel on to your waiting, heated grill pan. If you have a single-burner pan (like the one I used here) you may have to cook the fennel in two batches. Like I said, one bulb can provide an enormous amount of food; and you really need to provide food with adequate room to cook in. It’s OK. The fennel is nice and thin, so even if you have to split the batch it won’t take long.

Give it room. Show it love. Or, use a larger grilling surface if you're in a hurry.

Give it room. Show it love. Or, use a larger grilling surface–an outdoor grill, or a double-burner grill pan– if you’re in a hurry.

Leave the fennel strips alone for a few minutes. While they cook you can zest your orange and clean and chop the parsley. Give the fennel a stir on the grill after they’ve been browning for a few minutes. If they’ve been on your grill for five minutes and haven’t started to brown yet, then turn up the heat because your pan isn’t hot enough. Once they’ve gotten that lovely, grill-specific, brown-in-some-places-kind-of-charred-in-others look, and are soft and mellow (yet savory and still pleasantly crunchy), put it back in the mixing bowl. Add in orange zest and parsley.

Really. All there is to it.

Really. All there is to it.

Combine all ingredients. Taste a piece and decide if you need to adjust for more seasonings. More salt? Pepper? Nothing? Something? Ready? FEAST!

We served this with some ravioli and a side salad, but this could go with anything. With burgers. ON burgers. With grilled chicken, or crepes, or as a fruity and refreshing counter to a rich pulled pork. It’s such a simple side with readily-available ingredients, and it’s so easy to make. 

Plus, it looks great. Helloooo, you sexy dish.

Plus, it looks great. Helloooo, you sexy dish.

Don’t let the licorice-y reputation of fennel turn you off. When cooked, fennel offers an entirely different taste experience. Give it a shot! Explore your produce department. You never know what kind of new favorite thing you might encounter along the way.

Enjoy!

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Nosh: Two Way Fennel and Capers with Pasta

Hi folks.

Good to see you all again.

I know, it’s been a few weeks.  I had a rough one.  I had a bout of the blues, a touch of PTSD after my car accident, and a major funk when I reflected on 2013, which was a dismal year for me.  Thankfully I have a patient boyfriend and friends who care enough to let me open up to them.  Right now, it’s all good.

So I’m back!  And I want to talk to you all about the savory goodness of fennel.  Consider it a New Year’s gift.  Resolutions often involve eating more vegetables.  Sticking with more vegetables means eating them in surprising and tasty ways.

Fennel, fennel, fennel.  Big oniony-looking bulb, stalks that resemble celery, frothy fronds at the top.  Vaguely smells of licorice. What. The hell. Does one do with that sort of thing?

Delicious dietary addition or freak veggie?

Delicious dietary addition or freak veggie?

The answer, friends, is a simple one.  EAT IT!!!

Currently in the US, fennel is mostly seen a sort of curious, marginally exotic mystery vegetable that one can only cook if one is a wizard or a professional chef.  In the US the bulb usually shows up sliced thin and raw, in salads, with oranges, which is certainly delicious but, limited in its scope, a sad underuse of fennel and all its works.  If a vegetable is nose-to-tail friendly, as it were, this would be the one.  The fronds are a fantastic garnish for everything from chicken to pasta to green beans to potatoes to hummus.  The stalks are nice and crunchy and would be a great addition to any snack bag or crudite tray, and they shave nicely into salads.  The bulb, though…you can do anything with it.  Saute it.  Fennel is fantastic grilled.  Braise it in milk (yes, really).  You’ll thank me for it.  Or…

You can turn it into healthy and delicious pasta sauce.  Because yum.  Here’s what I used:

  • 2 medium-to-large fennel; stalks very thinly sliced, bulbs cored and diced, fronds set aside
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2-3 cloves garlic (to taste)
  • 1 teaspooon thyme
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 1 or 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 1 cup (ish) of vegetable broth
  • 2 generous tablespoons drained and rinsed capers (or more, if you’d like)
  • A handful of fresh chopped parsley

And I always cook for one package of pasta, because I completely lack the patience to measure ounces of pasta.  I’m no stranger to leftovers, and this sauce is even better the next day.  Moving on.

The first thing to do is attack the fennel, so to get started…scroll back up and look at the picture above.  Halve your fennel bulbs and cut out the knobby core at the bottom of the bulb.  Cut off the stalks and slice them very thinly; set them off to the side.  Dice the bulb like you would an onion: planks, sticks, then cubes.

planks sticks cubes-001

Straightforward, no?

While you’re at it, cut an onion in the same way, and mince however much garlic you’d like.  Get a big pan warming to a steady medium-level saute heat, and when it’s hot enough (you don’t need it screaming hot, just hot), add oil and toss in the diced fennel.  Fennel can be dense and it often surprises me that it takes longer than onions to cook, but there’s the truth.  So.  It goes in first, and let it cook happily for a few minutes.  It may start to brown; that’s fine, just don’t let it burn.  After five minutes or so, add the onions, garlic, thyme, red pepper flakes and some fresh-ground pepper.  Zest the lemon right over your pan; the essential oils that spray out of the skin when you zest will go directly into the pan, adding to the subtle, but present, lemony goodness.

Like so.

Like so.

Juice the lemon and set the juice aside.

Get a pot of water going for your pasta, if you haven’t done so already.  When your water is ready and you cook the pasta, you’ll take it to not-quite-doneness, as it will finish cooking when you add it in to the fennel sauce at the end.  And before you drain your not-entirely-cooked pasta, reserve a half-cup or so of pasta water, some of which you’ll add to the fennel sauce to finish.

Let the fennel and onion mixture all cook together in your pan, over a nice medium heat.  You’ll want to see the onions get soft and the garlic fragrant, which should take another 8 or 10 minutes.  Again, some browning and sticking to the bottom of the pan is fine.  Desirable, even, since it creates the fond which, when pulled up with some stock and stirred back into the pan, adds a tremendous flavor boost.  When the fennel is soft and the onions are translucent, pour in the stock and stir well with a wooden spoon, so any browning on the bottom of your pan comes up.  Add the bay leaves.  Simmer for 10 minutes or so.

This is moving along as it ought.

This is moving along as it ought.

You can also deglaze the pan with 1/4 cup of white wine before adding in the stock, since fennel loves to work with white wine.  I just didn’t have any in the house.  If you do, then pour in the wine, give it all a stir to pull up the fond.  Simmer for a few minutes, until the alcohol cooks out and the wine smells more like sauce and less like hot wine.  Add the stock at this point and carry on.

A note about the amount of stock: I say use about a cup, but this is entirely dependent on how you prefer your pasta sauce.  I want the sauce to be nice and thick, so I’m not going to use enough stock to make the sauce soupy.  The stock is going to cook off a little in the simmer, and then the entire thing will be blended together.  You’ll have an opportunity to thin the sauce after blending if you’d like, so my advice is to approach stock with a gentle hand and see how it goes.

Anyway.

Get another pan going and add your very thin slices of fennel stalk, with just a little salt and pepper added to bring out the flavor. You’re going to want to get these nice and browned and yummy, to serve as a crisp contrast to the soft fennel of the sauce.

Truth: cut them thinner than this.

Truth: Next time, I will cut them thinner than this.

Once these are nice and brown, remove them from the heat and top with the reserved lemon juice.  Set aside until the pasta is complete.

When all the contents of your pan have cooked together and the veggies are nice and tender, remove the bay leaves and give everything else a whirl in a blender or food processor.  Put the blended sauce back in the pan and back on the heat and if you feel like it’s too gloppy for your liking, thin your sauce by adding very small increments of stock.  Add in your drained pasta and the grilled fennel stalks, and a splash or two of reserved pasta water.  Let that cook together a minute or two longer, until the pasta is al dente and the sauce has become a lovely, clingy unit.  Check for seasonings and adjust salt and pepper as necessary.  Chop some fresh parsley, and drain and rinse your capers.

Normally I’d say capers and parsley are optional, but…not in this dish, they’re not.  The capers add a playful, deep, briny punch to the mellowed aroma of the fennel and heightens the hints of lemon in the sauce, and the parsley adds a fresh green pungency that lifts this dish off the plate and right into yo’ mouth.  You can also add some of the fennel fronds as a garnish, but I used most of them in the salad.

I want to make this again.  Right now.

I want to make this again. Right now.

When we sat down to eat dinner, my boyfriend took his first bite, then looked at me with a big smile on his face and said, “Wow!  And it’s not…totally weird!  You don’t need some fancy palate to enjoy this!”

Ummm.

Actually, though, that’s really cool.  Reviewer Number One thinks my fennel pasta sauce is yummy and generally accessible.  I’ll take it!  As this dish stands it’s entirely vegan, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t be amenable to a shot of cream or butter at the end, or a sprinkling of good, hard cheese.  We ate this with a fresh salad and sweet and spicy Brussels sprouts that were insanely good.  We ate it the next day, too.  We’re going to eat this again and again.  Yay for fennel!  Eat more of it, because it’s delicious!  You don’t even have to be a wizard.

George standing between two absolutely enormous wild fennel plants; Inis Mor, Aran Islands, Ireland.

George standing between two absolutely enormous wild fennel plants; Inis Mor, Aran Islands, Ireland.

Enjoy!

Nosh: Chestnut Crepes with Mushrooms and Radicchio

I. ~~~LOVE~~~. Chestnuts.

I’d never had them until a few years ago, as they were profoundly not a part of the diet on which I grew up, AND I was fussy for a long time, AND they’re not all that readily available.  A few facts about the noble chestnut:

The American chestnut treeCastanea dentata, at one point was abundantly found in much of the US.  However, it was extremely susceptible to chestnut blight, a fungus introduced by Asiatic chestnut trees.  Within a few decades the blight killed an estimated three billion (yes, with a B) American chestnut trees.

Corn is a new-world crop.  So polenta, the fancy Italian cornmeal mash (it’s like grits, with Parmigiano-Reggiano), was originally made with chestnut flour.  Or chickpea flour.  Or buckwheat flour.  As polenta was made with whatever sort of meal was readily available, it was considered a “poor-man’s food“.  Think about that next time you stare down a $25 plate of polenta at some schmancy restaurant.

The chestnut is also known as the “chinquapin” which, as any dedicated chick-flick watcher would know, is the name of the fictional parish in Louisiana in which Steel Magnolias is set.

Go, Dolly! Sell that shrimp for the Chinquapin Women's Club!

OK, now that I’m on a partial Dolly diversion AND, for some reason, this song’s been in my head for the last few days…

And so.  Back to the food.

We made chestnut crepes, and forgive me if I’m slacking but I’m too lazy right now to learn how to put in the diacritical without going to the character map time after time after time.  So.  Ever forward!  I forget what I was looking for that put me on their scent, but I’ve become a tremendous fan of crepes of all ilk, and when combined with my aforementioned love of the noble chestnut…<shrug>…  Like I had a choice.

I used Mario Batali‘s recipe because why not make use of one of America’s greatest culinary minds?  From what I understand, Italians call their crepes “crespelle“, so I’m a little surprised that’s not what Signore Batali calls them, but what the hell.  And so, without further ado (though with ample and unrepentant commentary), chestnut crepes with mushrooms and radicchio.

First up: make the batter.

The start of something good.

Here is one of my quibbles with this recipe: the ingredient list calls for butter in the batter (no, I’m not trying to Seussically rhyme), but the directions don’t tell you how to make use of the butter.  Following the lead of the nice person who commented on the recipe web page, I also, simply, omitted said butter.  They were still delicious without it.  The directions also say to let the batter sit for twenty minutes to an hour, but you can let it sit longer.  Mine probably sat for three or four hours, as we mixed it in the early afternoon.  Just don’t let it sit for any less than twenty minutes.  Do you hear me?  Just don’t.

Next, mushrooms.  Again, this is central PA and I don’t have nearly as much access to nearly as much fresh produce as I would like at any given point.  I also really really thought that–first time making this dish, at least–I should use what’s fresh and available, hence my pound of white buttons and creminis.  Chopped, fairly small.

If you keep applying your knife to your mushrooms, you too can have small shroomy bits.

This goes into a saucepan with some shallots and–because I can’t help myself and (you surely know this by now) have no regard for the integrity of a recipe–some garlic…

Garlic is my master...I hear and obey...

…and the thyme and rosemary.

Just let them simmer in their natural mushroomy goodness that's being released, no broth necessary and oh my word but the house smelled so good.

Once those are done, set them aside and get started on your crepe making.

There are those who insist you need special equipment–a crepe pan, a spreader, something that measures the humidity of your batter (I confess, I made that last one up)–but the truth is, you don’t.  I don’t even have a non-stick pan, partly because of a fairly irrational (and at this point, unfounded) fear of Teflon and partly because I simply prefer cast iron or stainless.  For crepes, I use my trusty, have-owned-for-twenty-something-years-and-hasn’t-let-me-down-yet cast iron skillet.

Second quibble with this recipe: It says each crepe should be poured out in increments of one-and-a-half tablespoons.  Unforch, I don’t have a handy one-and-a-half tablespoon measuring scoop, and I can’t think of anyone who does.  Plus, the batter is thin and will start to set up immediately once it hits a hot pan, so you can’t really spoon out out tablespoon and then go back in for the half.  I used a 1/8 cup measuring scoop, and it worked just fine.

Get your pan going to a nice medium heat, and coat it with whatever sort of fat you’re using.  Most people, for crepes, use butter.  I generally use olive oil.  Whatever you’re using, just have enough ready (in a bowl, melted if necessary) so you can re-grease the bottom of the pan during crepefication.  You don’t have to do so after every crepe, but you should be ready at all times.  Anyway.  In the pan!  And then give it a swirl so the batter distributes and wait about a minute or so.

Flip! And perfect.

See?  It doesn’t have to be perfectly round to be perfect.  Tastes just as good, that’s for certain.

And now, fill.  As a warning: the batter is thin.  The crepes will be thin.  They will probably tear when you’re stuffing some of them.  That doesn’t make you a bad person.

Here is my final quibble about this recipe: He tells you to put some stuffing in the crepe and then fold, but there are no instructions on how to fold.

Uh...now what?

I realize now I should have folded them in half and then in half again, like you do with the traditional crepes suzette…

Shoulda, woulda, coulda.

Instead, I folded them like little burritos.  Now I know better for next time.  And there will be a next time.

It turned out that I had more crepes than I had ‘shrooms, so I stuffed the remainder with some leftover fennel braised in orange juice and had a little mix & match crepe feast.  FYI, if you make this fennel recipe and there are only two of you, halve the recipe because otherwise you’ll end up with a tremendous, nearly practical-joke-sized amount of leftover braised fennel and while I love it, it’s a pretty easy thing to have enough of quickly and want to move on.  But it is delicious; I would make it for a fancy dinner.

Braised fennel: not a bad way to have a makeshift crepe filling.

Once it’s out of the oven, top with the thinly-sliced radicchio dressed in balsamic vinaigrette, and shave on a little Parmigiano-Reggiano, and you’re good to go.

It's like a Borg: Resistance is futile.

We served this with a beautiful green salad and skillet cauliflower gratin (which is OMFG so good and one of the few recipes I go back to all the time), and enjoyed every last morsel of it’s crepey goodness.  The fennel was fun but the earthiness of the mushrooms played off the sweetness of the chestnut in an amazing harmony.  And when you mix that with the bitter bite of radicchio?  You’re pretty much covering all your savory bases.  This is a definite keeper.  Enjoy!

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