My new goal is to pick out an ingredient that goes infrequently eaten in my diet each time I hit the grocery store. However, I don’t intend for new to mean complicated. Instead, I want to simply expand my culinary expertise as well as my diet, showing myself and others that utilizing a new, maybe even intimidating, ingredient can be easy and exciting. The first random ingredient I chose: Fresh Fennel.
The most intimidating feature of my choice was not finding a use for the fennel, but making sure the bulb I chose hadn’t been sitting on the grocery store shelves for ages. My local grocery store (located right next to a college campus nearing the edge of the ghetto) certainly isn’t Whole Foods, and the typical shopper doesn’t resemble the Whole Foods foodie either. After finagling the 5 or so sitting fennel bulbs, I chose the best looking one and headed to the check-out counter. Once I reached the front of the line, I proceeded to physically help the cashier look up the code for fennel in her plastic produce booklet. After informing her of this peculiar looking vegetable’s name, fennel, or sometimes referred to as anise, we then had to tackle a whole other set of questions. Was fennel an herb? Greens? A root vegetable? (Clearly not a root vegetable…) What category did this tulip-looking-bulb with its sprouted dill-looking-hair fall under? My first inclination was to search for it near the celery…nope, not there. After some continuous flipping (from both myself and the cashier), we finally found the fennel in the herb section of the produce code booklet. I’m still not quite sure what fennel constitutes as, but upon doing some research I’ve found it’s from the Umbellifereae family…whatever that means. From there, I continued with my check-out and then headed out the door, ready to conquer this ingredient with my cooking skills.
While fennel is not entirely new to me, unbeknownst to me, I rarely use it in my cooking. I had came across it several times before and was already fairly fond of the taste. When raw, fresh fennel has a rather potent licorice taste and a texture similar to celery stalks (except for its “hair”, which truly resembles dill in texture). Cooking the fennel mellows out the licorice taste, transforming fennel into a slightly sweet treat with hints of celery, licorice, and cabbage flavors. The texture again resembles that of cooked celery, and the dill-like “hair” wilts down into a tender, flowery consistency.
Fennel can be used in a wide range of dishes, providing the perfect compliment in everything from soups and stews, to salads, to seafood and meat dishes. One can certainly get fancy with this dual-textured ingredient, but as I said before, I wanted to keep it simple. What can you expect from a college student persistently tight on time? Simple and easy is my middle name…but don’t forget delicious too!
I chose to enhance the slight sweetness of the fennel with raisins, and stick with the basics for the rest of dish. I used good quality extra virgin olive oil to first caramelize the fennel, drawing out its own natural sweetness, then tossed in some more natural sweetness with the raisins. I then just added a pinch of basic kosher salt to give the dish that irresistible sweet and salty component. To top it off, a kick of ground pepper, and a dash of balsamic vinegar to complete the caramelization, finishing the dish with a whole bang of flavor. Here’s the recipe broken down:
Braised Fennel with Raisins
–1 fresh fennel bulb with tops kept on
– Handful of raisins
-Olive oil, 1 1/2 Tbs.
-Kosher salt, to taste
-Fresh ground pepper, to taste
-Balsamic vinegar, 1 scant tsp. (a dash)
Separate the bulb of the fennel from the stalks. Cut bulbs in half and slice. Slice stalks, and roughly chop the feathery green fronds. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add sliced fennel and saute for 5 minutes. Add salt, pepper, and handful of raisins to pan, stirring frequently. If fennel starts to stick, add a few tablespoons of warm water to the pan. After about a minute, cover, and let cook for an additional 2-3 minutes, or until fennel become translucent and tender (similar to cooked celery). Remove from heat. Toasted pine nuts make a great addition, so feel free to top the dish with some if available.
The perfect healthy, side dish. This under-used, delicious-tasting item packs in tons of fiber (3 grams per 1 cup sliced) and a significant amount of vitamin C, so eat up!