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Braised Fennel Wedges with Saffron and Tomato an easy, tasty side dish

Cookbook author Deborah Madison tells me fennel is in the carrot family. Its nicknames include bulb fennel, Florence fennel, and finocchio. Formally, it's Foeniculum vulgare var. Azoricum.

Fennel, apparently, is one of the more efficient vegetables. You can eat the bulb, the stalks and the feathery fronds that remind me of dill, except they taste better.

Still, who could guess that the hollow stalks of fennel, the smaller ones, can be used as straws. I don't know why I would know that, 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 Vegetable Literacy, though the gorgeous book cover was also hard to ignore.

The subtitle for this book is: Cooking and Gardening With 12 Families From the Edible Plant Kingdom, With Over 300 Deliciously Simple Recipes. Parts of it feel like a textbook, which I can appreciate after saying goodbye to biology classes a long time ago. Understanding what families these vegetables come from should teach me how to use them together and encourage improvisation.

The recipe for braised fennel wedges jumped out at me immediately. I made just some slight changes by using fresh thyme and a bit more garlic. Use more onion if you feel like it.

I thought the onions would fry too quickly, but I kept stirring and everything did actually start to steam while the saffron stained the onions a deep yellow. I needed a wider pan to properly 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. After the fennel wedges get some color, try to keep them above water as they simmer in the sauce to show off the char you worked for.

A braise coaxes out the fennel's sweetness, making it mellow, tender and golden. Madison says fennel is a natural with seafood and this dish was absolutely wonderful with Danny's pan-seared scallops. They seemed to enhance each other, the fennel bringing out the sweetness in the wild sea scallops.

Fennel, you've grown on me. This girl who avoided anything anise-flavored, even the marzipan-filled chocolates of Vienna during her big trip to Europe. Ten years later, I keep a jar of fennel seeds on the top shelf of my spices and I keep buying these bulbs that fan out into electric green fronds. I'll keep this recipe, too.

Ileana Morales is a writer who cooks in a small apartment kitchen in Tampa with boyfriend Danny Valentine, an education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. For more of their kitchen adventures, visit Ileana's blog, alittlesaffron.com. She can be reached at alittlesaffron@gmail.com.

>>EASY

Braised Fennel Wedges

With Saffron and Tomato

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 ½ teaspoons fresh thyme (or ½ teaspoon dried)

2 garlic cloves, crushed

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 ½ cups vegetable or chicken stock (or water)

Sea salt

1 tablespoon butter

Black pepper

Minced fennel greens or parsley

Trim off the stalks and greens from the fennel bulbs. Halve each bulb lengthwise. Cut the halves into wedges about 1 ½ 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 and garnished with fennel greens.

Serves 3 to 4 as a side.

Source: Adapted slightly from Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison

Braised Fennel Wedges with Saffron and Tomato an easy, tasty side dish 05/14/13 [Last modified: Monday, May 13, 2013 3:00pm]
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