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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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!”
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.