Braised fennel with raw yellow beets and corn
I was first introduced to fennel during my apprenticeship with Chef Xavier Bauser. (See food journal) The fennel came in a large box from a California farm. It was going to be the “vegetable du jour” on the hotel restaurants menu that evening.
Chef had me clean the fennel down to the bulb by removing the stalk and outer layers. I cut each bulb into quarters and placed the pieces cut side down in a pan. Whole milk was added to the pan to cover the fennel. I added a little salt before placing the fennel in the oven to braise. I did not work evenings at the hotel during that time, so I never tasted the milk braised fennel, nor observe if the diners enjoyed it. Little did I know my life long infatuation with fennel had begun. The first encounter of just cutting the fennel and smelling the anise flavor was enough!
Fennel is forgiving when it is braised, becoming soft as the anise flavor tends to become more pronounced over an extended cooking time. This recipe counters braised fennel texture with the raw crunch of beets and corn, giving this flavor profile contrast, color and depth. This is makes a great vegetable side dish to serve with seared scallops or firm white fish, such as cod or halibut.
As for the milk braised fennel, it will return in a recipe this winter!
Makes 4 individual salads or one large platter for serving 4 to 6 FAMILY-STYLE
3 medium size fennel bulbs, stems and fronds reserved
1 small white onion, thinly sliced
1 fresh chile pepper, jalapeño, serrano or other, cut in half, seeds removed
1 bay leaf
6 to 8 sprigs fresh thyme
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar, divided
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 lemon, zested and zest finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
2 ears fresh corn, shucked and kernels removed, or 1 cup frozen corn, blanched
4 small yellow beets, peeled and thinly sliced (use a mandolin or the side of the box grater with a single blade
Peel the outer layer from the fennel bulbs, square off the top by cutting off the stalks and cut the bulb in quarters. Reserve the stalks to add to the braising liquid for extra flavor (they're fibrous and unpleasant to eat as is). Place the fennel pieces in a saucepan with a heavy bottom with the onions, chile pepper, bay leaf, thyme, fennel seeds and 3/4 cup of the vinegar. Add enough water so that the fennel pieces can float in the braising liquid. If using them, tie the fennel stalks into a bundle so that they can be removed easily and add them to the pan. Salt the water generously and bring to a simmer over medium high heat. The fennel can be submerged further by placing a piece of baking or parchment paper over the pieces putting a plate on top with weigh them down slightly.
After 40 to 50 minutes, the fennel will begin to soften; you can let it get fairly soft without overcooking it and having it turn mushy. When it is soft, remove the pan from the heat and let the fennel cool in its braising liquid. For fennel that is slightly firmer, remove the pieces from the liquid along with the onions and peppers immediately after taking the pan off of the heat.
While the fennel is braising, make the vinaigrette. Whisk the oil, remaining 3 tablespoons vinegar and lemon zest in a small bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Put the corn kernels and sliced beets in separate bowls with equal amounts of the vinaigrette and season to taste with salt. Set aside.
Once the fennel pieces are cool, use a slotted spoon to remove them from the pan and discard the braising liquid. Save the cooked onions and chile to serve with the fennel.
To serve, place a piece of fennel and some of the onions on each of four salad plates, and season lightly with salt. Spoon the beets over the fennel followed by the corn. Chop the reserved fennel fronds and sprinkle them liberally over the tops of the salads. Drizzle with any remaining vinaigrette and finish with freshly ground black pepper.Sprinkle chopped fennel fronds over the top, spoon any remaining vinaigrette over the fennel. Grind fresh black pepper over the top.