Side dishes have an important role in Italian cuisine. These, often vegetarian, preparations are meant as an accompaniment to a second course, whether it’s meat or fish, a piatto freddo (literally, cold dish) of cheese and/or cold cuts, or a vegetarian preparation. To have a side of braised fennel was common in my family while growing up, and I now make it regularly.
Fennel is known for its aromatic seeds and as a vegetable consisting of the lower part of its stalks, which form an enlarged bulb-shaped bundle(1). As the stalks separate, they become fibrous and are discarded in cooking. Fennel belongs to the umbellifers family along with celery (which it visually resembles), carrots, parsnip, parsley, cilantro, dill, anise, and other plants which tend to produce flowers in umbrella-shaped clusters.
Fennel has a strong anise aroma due to the presence of anethole, an organic compound also found in anise seeds. Some say that fennel tastes like licorice, but this is really because many licorice candies are flavored with anise.
Nutritionally, fennel is a good source of vitamins (e.g.: C, A), minerals (e.g.: potassium, manganese), as well as carbohydrates in the form of dietary fiber (non-digestible) and sugar (3.9% in weight).
Fennel is consumed raw (e.g.: thinly sliced and added to salads) or cooked (e.g.: roasted, braised, or au gratin). In this recipe:
- I sliced the fennel perpendicularly to its fibers to tenderize it.
- I pan roasted it in olive oil and butter to caramelize the sugars and develop flavor through browning.
- Then, I added salt to enhance the flavor and to extract some water (via osmosis).
- Allowed the fennel to braise in its own juice covered with a lid at a low temperature.
- Interrupted the cooking after 15-20 minutes or when the fennel was cooked through but still had a slightly fibrous texture.
- 2 fennel bulbs
- 1/2 Tbsp butter
- 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
- Slice the fennel perpendicularly to its fibers, discarding the stalks.
- In a non-stick pan, warm up olive oil and butter, then add the fennel.
- Roast the fennel at a high temperature, tossing and flipping it frequently.
- Add a pinch of salt, lower the temperature, cover with a lid, and allow the fennel to braise.
- Cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring from time to time, just until the fennel is cooked through.
(1)Harold McGee. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. 2nd edition (2004).