Oh my. This little dish is beyond fantastic. And it's pretty easy to do, too. Don't be afraid of the cream, there's only a little added at the end. Recipe and more tales, after the jump.
The fennel emerges deeply browned, caramelized and velvety smooth. The caramelizing gently sweetens and knocks some of the anise flavors down a few notches. The salt is important here as it keeps this dish from leaning into dessert territory and, along with the lemon, adds complexity and brightness.
Cream-Braised Fennel ala Orangette
4 fennel bulbs, trimmed (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 pinches of sea salt
2 to 4 tablespoons heavy cream
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
If your fennel isn't trimmed, cut off the stalks and fronds right where they grow out of the bulb. (Tip: save some of the lacy fronds for garnish or toss in a salad.) Remove any bruised or extremely tough outer leaves and trim the bottom. 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 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 their cut sides is down. Cook gently over medium heat until browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Do not stir the fennel: you want to get a nice brown color going on the cut side. Gently turn the fennel using a pair of tongs. and brown the other side.
Sprinkle on some salt, and have a lid handy. 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.
Remove the lid and pour in the cream. Simmer gently until the cream starts to thicken and glazes the fennel, about 5 minutes. Add the lemon juice, shaking the pan. Taste for salt or more lemon. Serve hot as a side dish or a first course.
Note: My plan for today was to bring you a lovely, seasonal sorrel pesto recipe. I was actually a little excited about this because sorrel isn't too widely known but I think it's just great. So I was looking forward to waving the sorrel flag, getting you just as hopped up as I am about this amazing plant. Friends, I tried. The Lord, and my car-driving friend Vince, knows I tried. But there was no Sorrel in the City today. And it took a comedy of errors (including a power outage that took down a half of a city block) and several trips around several markets to find this out. Sometimes, you just have to give up.
Related: Fennel Braised in Pernod
(Images: Dana Velden)