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In praise of braising

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.

Braised Fennel
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


Blogger foodiechickie said...

Glad to see a post. Hope you are on yourway to recovery!

4:02 PM, November 11, 2005  
Blogger T said...

Molly this sounds lovely- I've been wanting to try fennel but had no idea how to cook it, so this is just the thing to get me started. Thanks for sharing the recipe!

6:38 PM, November 11, 2005  
Anonymous Tana said...

Heh. I love braising: it's so reassuring.

Thought you might like to see Braisin' Hussy stuff I designed. (And Molly Stevens herself owns an apron.)

: D

8:34 PM, November 11, 2005  
Blogger Zarah Maria said...

He bit into a fennel bulb as if it was an apple?? Now that's just - ahem... different! Love braised fennel - I usually sprinkle a little parmesan on top for the last minutes, letting it bubble and brown, then serve the braised, cheesy-topped fellas on top of brown rice (so virtous!) Mmmm, fennel...

1:30 AM, November 12, 2005  
Blogger aficionado said...

fennel is great with a funky vodka risotto, i really like your blog by the way it looks a lot like mine haha just kidding, want to link blogs?

2:11 AM, November 12, 2005  
Anonymous Melissa said...

My sentiments exactly! I used to be just like you, disliking anything with an anise flavor, but a few experiments with fennel had me succumbing to its charms, and gave me a mean thirst for pastis to boot. The funny thing, however, is that my husband, bless his quirky heart, loves licorice (both sweet and salty), loves pastis, yet HATES fennel. He won't come within a mile of it when I cook it, whether it's braised, pureed or crunchy-fresh. What's a girl to do?

5:31 AM, November 12, 2005  
Blogger Cathy said...

Hi Molly - I'll have to try this. I love fennel seed in cookies and sausage, and have enjoyed very much nibbling on it raw, but haven't really developed a taste for it cooked. I've only cooked it once (I think) in a gratin and it wasn't that I didn't like, it just wasn't something I really enjoyed. But... I'm eager to give it another try!

7:10 AM, November 12, 2005  
Blogger Derrick said...

I have won over many an anti-fennel attitude with braised fennel, though I use it for all sorts of things (ceviche style at times, pickled, etc.)

But braising is a favorite technique in this household as well, especially with winter on its way. It's just too bad it ties up the burner/oven compartment for so long, as I often have to plan things very carefully when we're having a braised dish for a dinner party.

8:18 AM, November 12, 2005  
Anonymous kayenne said...

hey... do u get pigeons or black chicken there much? i got a good recipe to warm up the tummy. usually eaten by those who had just given birth, but hey, it's good for winter. ;P

9:26 AM, November 12, 2005  
Anonymous Pearl said...

I'll have to give fennel another go. Thanks.

10:28 AM, November 12, 2005  
Anonymous keiko said...

Molly, it looks beautiful! I love cooking fennel this way, although I like using it in salad as well... I hope you are feeling better now, look after yourself!

1:23 PM, November 12, 2005  
Blogger amylou said...

A former fennel-hater myself, I'm slowly starting to like the stuff (ordering that fennel pizza this summer was a rather bold move for me, you know...). Now I think I'm ready to give this a go. Could vegetable broth be substituted successfully? Any serving suggestions?

4:19 AM, November 13, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Awww, foodiechickie, thank you. I am indeed slowly on my way...

Tanvi, you are most certainly welcome. This is a great entree into fennel, if I do say so myself, and I hope you agree.

Tana, I should have known you'd be a fellow braising fan. Speaking of which, your "Braisin' Hussy" gear is pretty damn cute! Thanks for the heads-up...

Zarah Maria, that's right: he bit into it like an apple. It was about two years ago, and though my memories are a bit blurry, I seem to recall that he also was popping some pretty funky-smelling homeopathic pills. Hmm. I've told Brandon about the fennel bit, and he didn't seem to think it was too strange--maybe it's his hippie upbringing? Whatever. I'm glad to see that you find it as bizarre as I did! And as for the parmesan, excellent thinking, my dear. I'll remember it for next time.

Your "funky" vodka risotto sounds very intriguing, aficionado, and I'll bet fennel would be delicious with it! And as for your blog, thanks for letting me know. I look forward to giving it a read...

Melissa, well, I suppose Manuel does have to have some faults. All we can do is pray, my dear, and keep braising.

Cathy, I'll be curious to hear what you think. I can't imagine that you wouldn't be won over, but well, I'm obviously biased. But as for fennel seeds, do you have a cookie recipe you might recommend? I've had fennel seeds in biscotti and loved it, so I'm open to suggestions...

Derrick, I'm not at all surprised to hear that you're well-versed in the arts of braising. And ceviche-style fennel? I'll take a bowlful, please.

Kayenne, I can't say that we eat much pigeon over here--many people see them as dirty ("rats with wings") and would likely be averse to eating them--and I unfortunately haven't ever seen this intriguing "black chicken." I'd love to hear more about it...

Pearl, you're welcome.

Keiko, thank you! And yes, I'm slowly improving. Eating lots of vegetables, drinking water, sleeping wondrously soundly. Slowly, but surely...

And Amy, I had forgotten about that pizza! You are to be commended for facing down your fear of fennel. Should you choose to forge ahead and braise some, yes, vegetable broth will be just fine. As a matter of fact, when I first made this recipe, I was still a pseudo vegetarian, so I used vegetable broth too. And as for serving suggestions, serve it as you would any other vegetable side dish. I've got my fingers crossed...

3:37 PM, November 14, 2005  
Blogger Shauna said...


You see, I go away to LA for the weekend, and I miss so much! This braised fennel sounds gorgeous. You and I share an affinity for Zuni Cafe foods. Add another one to the list.

And this autumn and winter is when I've finally learned how to braise. I'm going to try this soon.

Now, I wonder how braised leeks would be....

So good to see you back, my dear.

5:41 PM, November 14, 2005  
Blogger Cathy said...

Hi Molly - I've had them in biscotti like you - just delicious! I was thinking they were in this other cookie, but now I remember that was anise seed. They're the Tijuana Fiesta cookies from the Maida Heatter Cookie book.

PS - I bought a couple of fennel bulbs, so braised fennel is in my (near) future!

3:52 AM, November 16, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Shauna, my dear, speaking of braising, you seem to be a master in the making. For our next cook-fest, how about your braised lamb shank AND some braised leeks? I'm so pushy, I know.

And Cathy, thanks so much for getting back to me with the name of that cookie! My mother has that Maida Heatter cookbook, actually. Something tells me I might be able to sneak it off her bookshelf and into my suitcase when I'm in Oklahoma for Thanksgiving next week...

5:17 PM, November 17, 2005  
Blogger Erielle said...

Hooray for braising! The exorbitant amount I spent on my beautiful red Le Creuset Dutch Oven is completely and totally worth it. And now that's summer and not prime braising season, I miss it dearly.

7:48 AM, June 11, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Erielle, braising is one of the few reasons, in my humble opinion, to look forward to winter again. But in the meantime, give that Le Creuset a stroke every now and then, and know that you'll be together again soon...

3:21 PM, June 12, 2006  

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