I’m not one for favorites. I have no favorite movie, no favorite color, no favorite number, no favorite song. Declaring something a favorite seems to freeze it unfavorably in time, mark it with an expiration date, foist it up onto a pedestal from which it will inevitably tumble when the next favorite comes along. Instead, I like to think of myself as more of an equal-opportunity appreciator. I have my preferences and my pets, certainly, but they are fluid, mutable, and therefore, I like to think, more fitting to the human condition.
But, dear reader, I must make a shameful confession: come cold weather, I have a nasty bias toward braising. And though I hate myself a little for saying so, I’m starting to think this is a favorite cooking method in the making. I love to braise. There are few things—vegetable, animal, or otherwise—that don’t stand to benefit from a slow, barely simmering soak in some sort of aromatic liquid, myself included. When I was fifteen, I wrote an urgent, breathless poem about wanting to immerse myself in a vat of marshmallow creme, but today, I’d much rather a warm pool of gently rumbling broth, or wine, or both, preferably with an eye pillow. And short of that, I’ll settle for a plate of braised fennel, a seasonal favorite of my kitchen if ever there were one.
For many of us, fennel is an acquired taste. Until a few years ago, I was among those who consistently plead “no, thank you” at the merest whiff of the licorice-scented stuff. I am still no lover of licorice, but somewhere along the way, I was brought around to the pro-fennel camp. You won’t catch me biting into a bulb apple-style, like a man I once sat next to on an airplane, but otherwise, I’m a solid “yes, please.” Fennel’s crunch and sprightly anise flavor make it a regular in my salad bowl, with red oak-leaf lettuce and slivers of kalamata olives; with lemon, olive oil, and nubbles of aged Gouda; or tossed with Dijon vinaigrette and dusted with shards of toasted hazelnuts. But when cooked—or, more specifically, braised—it becomes something else entirely, something that, I’d dare to venture, could even win over those fennel-fearing stragglers. With a half-hour’s soak in simmering liquid, the high-pitched flavor and aroma of raw fennel give way to something rounder, more lingering, and more voluptuous, sweet, herbal, and mellow. The bulb cedes its crunch in favor of fork-tender softness and goes downright silky in a puddle of wine, broth, and olive oil.
And though I’d very much like to soften the season’s rainy chill with a dip in the braising pot myself, playing favorites with fennel will at least pass the time, and deliciously so.
Adapted from The Zuni Café Cookbook
While braised meats can take hours, braised vegetables are ready in only 30 or so minutes, making this type of preparation relatively quick and trouble-free. After a brief gilding in a skillet, the fennel slides into the oven and takes care of itself. It’s a set-it-and-forget-it operation. Choose smallish to medium bulbs, preferably not those seemingly steroid-pumped ones the size of Paul Bunyon’s fist, which tend to be woody and have loose layers. You want smooth, firm, white to light green bulbs that feel heavy for their size, with no shriveling or brown spots. Braised fennel is especially delicious with roasted birds or a nice pork roast, but frankly, I’ll take it alongside nearly anything. It also reheats beautifully in the microwave or, covered, in the oven.
3-4 fennel bulbs, each about 6-8 ounces, trimmed of stems and fronds
2-3 Tbs olive oil
About ½ cup dry white wine
About ½ cup good-quality chicken broth
Salt, preferably a good, flaky variety such as Maldon
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cut the fennel into 1- to 1 ½-inch wedges, or, if you’re using smaller bulbs, quarter them.
Warm about 2 Tbs of olive oil in a large (preferably 12-inch) skillet over medium-low heat. Lay fennel wedges in one crowded layer in the pan, and cook them until they are golden on the bottom, about 5-10 minutes, and then flip them to gild the other side. Salt them lightly. As the fennel finishes browning, remove the wedges to a flameproof baking dish. You may need to brown the fennel in batches, adding oil as needed, until all of it is browned.
Arrange the fennel in a single, crowded layer in the baking dish. Add the wine and chicken broth in equal parts to reach a depth of ½ inch. Place the dish over medium heat, and bring the liquid to a simmer. Transfer the dish to the oven, and bake until the fennel is tender, about 20-30 minutes. Serve, with additional salt for sprinkling.
Yield: about 4 servings