Braised Fennel Wedges with Saffron and Tomato

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Fennel, you’ve grown on me. The girl who avoided anything anise-flavored and  tasted her way through several chocolates in Vienna before realizing with great disappointment that, yes, they’re nearly all filled with marzipan; it reminds me of anise. I was 15 then. Now I keep a jar of fennel seeds on the top shelf of my spices and I keep buying, occasionally, these bulbs with long fans of electric green fronds.

Deborah Madison tells me fennel is in the carrot family, which I probably could not have guessed. She tells me its nicknames, which include bulb fennel, Florence fennel, and finocchio (!) Formally, it’s foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum.

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Fennel, apparently, is one of the more efficient vegetables, which makes total sense if you think about it. You can eat the bulb, the stalks, and the feathery fronds that remind me of dill but whose taste I much prefer.

Still, who could’ve guess that the hollow stalks of fennel, the smaller ones, can be used as straws. I don’t know why I would know that or why you would know that (did you??) but I’m glad to learn this trivia from someone who much more intimately understands and knows her vegetables. I guess that’s why I bought this book, though the gorgeous cover was also hard to ignore.

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The subtitle for this book is ‘cooking and gardening with twelve families from the edible plant kingdom, with over 300 deliciously simple recipes.’ And so, I hope to better understand the relationship between vegetables in the same family and how they complement each other in a meal. There is plenty to read and to learn about, but this recipe for Braised Fennel Wedges with Saffron and Tomato immediately grabbed my attention and held it.

For anyone keeping track at home, this is our first recipe on the blog with saffron! The recipe is straightforward. I made just some slight changes by using fresh thyme and a bit more garlic. The braise coaxes out the fennel’s sweetness, making it mellow, tender, and golden.

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I thought the onions would fry too quickly, but I stirred and stirred, and everything did actually start to steam as the saffron stained the onions a deep yellow. I realized I really needed a wider pan to brown or char the wedges, so I’d likely use the biggest thing we have next time, the Dutch oven.

If you also find yourself with too little cooking space, reserve some of the onions to make way for the fennel wedges in the pan. You could also brown some of the wedges separately in another pan. You could use more onion if you felt like it, and I would next time, especially now that I’m using a mandoline to quickly and thinly slice them. This allows less time for crying; the onions get me every damn time.

Anyway, after you give the wedges some color, try to keep them above water as they simmer in the sauce to show off the char you worked for.

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Madison mentions fennel is a natural with seafood, and this dish was absolutely wonderful with pan-seared scallops. They seemed to enhance each other, the fennel bringing out the sweetness in the wild sea scallops. This dish has already earned its place on dinner rotation around here, or lunch, which we had around 6 p.m. this Saturday (man, I love the weekend).

There are other recipes bookmarked, for sure, including a really pretty carrot cake with ricotta cream. I may hang out with the carrot family for a while. I’ll definitely be browsing through this book for some time, as it now lives on my coffee table, and in some ways it feels a bit like a textbook; a girl who graduated college three years ago this month can appreciate that.

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braised fennel wedges with saffron and tomato

Deborah Madison mentions fennel is a natural pairing with seafood, and she is so right. This was perfect with pan-seared scallops; the fennel is tender and mellow, and it really enhances the sweetness of wild sea scallops. Serve with a hunk of bread, rice, or another hearty grain like farro.

2 large fennel bulbs
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
a generous pinch of saffron threads
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
2 garlic cloves, crushed
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken stock (or water)
sea salt
1 tablespoon butter
black pepper
minced fennel greens or parsley
pan-seared scallops (optional, but it rounds this out for a great meal)

Trim off the stalks and greens from the fennel bulbs. Halve each bulb lengthwise. Cut the halves into wedges about 1 1/2 inches at the widest part, which will give you roughly three wedges per half.

Heat the olive oil in a wide saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and fennel seeds, then the saffron and thyme. Stir all the ingredients together and cook until the onions begin to steam and catch color released from the saffron, up to 5 minutes or so. Add the fennel wedges and cook until golden (though a bit of a char is best), turning the wedges and the onions occasionally. If your skillet isn’t large enough, reserve some of the onions to make way for the fennel; you can also heat up another skillet to char some of the fennel wedges.

When the fennel wedges have earned some nice color, stir in the garlic and tomato paste. Then add the stock and 1 teaspoon salt. Scrape the bottom of the pan to incorporate everything, cover, and simmer until the fennel is tender, about 15 minutes. Stir the butter in with 3 or 5 minutes to go. Or if you end up with too much liquid, pour it into a small skillet and when ready to serve, add the butter to the juices, bring to a boil, and then simmer until rich and syrupy. Pour the sauce over the fennel. Taste and season with pepper and more salt if needed. Serve warm, garnished with fennel greens (and a side of pan-seared scallops).

Serves 3 to 4 as a side. Adapted slightly from Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison.

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