The bulbs were big slightly flattened ovals, the tops were tall, and the fern-like fronds reminded me of the gentle branches that drooped from the giant willow trees surrounding my childhood home.
Fennel is reminiscent of hearth and home for me. But, never cooked. Always raw. As kids we called it "finook" our shortened version of finocchio. It was a favorite treat, a delicacy, served in a the same cut glass celery dish only on special occasions.
It wasn't until I was an adult and cooking my way through Marcella Hazan's "The Classic Italian Cookbook" that I discovered cooked fennel. It was transcendent. Gone was the crisp crunch and juicy taste of licorice. In it's place was a soft silken texture and sweet subtle taste that I loved.
I still enjoy biting into a crisp ring of raw fennel, but my favorite winter vegetable side dish is braised fennel. Over the years I've strayed a bit from the original recipe, but the technique I learned from Marcella.
To make a vegetarian supper I serve Braised Fennel with Melted Parmigiano Reggiano with Oven Baked White Beans and Quick and Easy Roasted Red Pepper Wedges.
Skillet Braised Fennel with Melted Parmigiano Reggiano
Don't skip the first step that requires soaking the cut fennel in ice water. Soaked fennel always seems to be softer and moister than fennel I have neglected to soak before braising. Also, I know an 8-ounce wedge of cheese sounds like a lot, and it is. You won't use the entire wedge, but you'll need it to be able to shave off wide curls of Parmigiano Reggiano to melt on top of the fennel during the last few minutes of cooking.
2 bulbs fennel
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove
2 tablespoons finely chopped fennel fronds
I wedge (about 8 ounces) Parmigiano Reggiano
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Cut the tops from the fennel bulbs leaving only about 1 inch of the stalk attached. Wash the bulbs and use a serrated vegetable peeler to remove any bruises. Cut the bulb lengthwise into quarters. Finely chop 2 tablespoons of the fennel fronds and set aside. Place the cut fennel bulbs in a large bowl and add cold water to cover. Add a few ice cubes and let the fennel stand about 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry.
2. Place the fennel in a deep skillet or saute pan. Add about 1/2 inch of water and a pinch of salt. Drizzle the fennel with the olive oil. Bruise the garlic with the side of a knife and add it to the pan.
3. Cook the fennel, covered, over medium low heat, 15 minutes. With tongs carefully turn the fennel. Pierce it with a skewer or the tip of a small knife. It should be very soft. If it is still firm, cover and cook 10 to 20 minutes longer. Then uncover and cook over medium high heat until all the liquid is evaporated. Sprinkle with the fennel fronds.
4. Use a cheese plane or a vegetable peeler to remove large curls of cheese from the wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano. You won't use all the cheese, but you will need a nice sized wedged to be able to get nice big curls. Place one or two curls on top of each wedge of fennel. Cover and cook just until the cheese begins to melt, about 3 minutes. Top with freshly ground black pepper and serve.
Makes 4 servings