Braising with Two Famous Ladies

A super fabulous and seductively tender side dish from chef/author Molly Stevens—and you know how much we love her braised dishes! This Fennel Braised with Thyme and Black Olives recipe was a perfect accompaniment to our Chicken in Beer entrée, a heart-warming recipe from Lidia Bastianich’s cookbook Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine, a Christmas present to Russ from his son David.

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But back to the side dish. Cooking fennel is akin to cooking onions. Considering raw fennel is crisp and almost biting, braised fennel transforms to tame and splendidly supple. The sharp anise flavor of the raw vegetable mellows into a sweetness that even non–licorice lovers will appreciate. (Sister-in-law Dee, I’m telling you, you need to give this a try.)

Molly says don’t be at all put off by the anchovies in the recipe. They are discernible only as a bass note of flavor to match the higher tones of the sweet fennel. If you’re serving these to professed anchovy haters, don’t say a word. They’ll never guess what makes the dish taste so good.

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Ingredients

  • 3 large or 4 medium fennel bulbs (about 3 pounds total)
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup pitted oil-cured black olives, such as Nyons or Moroccan
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 5 to 6 anchovy fillets, minced
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • ½ teaspoon fennel seeds, toasted and lightly crushed
  • ½ teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted and lightly crushed
  • ⅓ cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
  • ¾ cup chicken stock, homemade or store-bought

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Trimming the fennel: If the fennel came with the feathery green stalks attached, use a large knife to chop these off right down at their base, where the bulb begins. Reserve a few of the brightest and freshest-looking fronds for garnish, and save the rest for stock or discard. If the very base of the fennel bulbs looks brown or at all dried out, slice off a thin sliver. Check the sides of the bulbs as well, and trim off any brown parts with a vegetable peeler. Cut each bulb in half through the core and then halve again, into quarters.
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  3. Browning the fennel: Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large heavy-based skillet (12-inch) over medium-high heat until it ripples. Add as many quarters of fennel as will fit without crowding, one cut side down. Leave the fennel undisturbed for 3 minutes—moving the pieces around will only slow down the browning process. With tongs, lift a few quarters to check to see if they’ve browned in spots. Because of its uneven surface, the fennel won’t brown evenly: you’re looking for patches of caramelization. Turn the quarters onto the other cut side and leave again until browned, another 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the quarters from the pan and arrange them browned side up in a large gratin dish or shallow baking dish (9- to 10-by-13- to 14-inches). Add the remaining oil to the skillet and brown the remaining fennel. Add this batch of fennel to the gratin dish, arranging it as best you can so the wedges line up in a single layer. It’s okay if the wedges are a bit cramped; they will collapse and shrink some as they braise. Season with salt and pepper. Scatter over the olives.
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  4. The aromatics and braising liquid: Combine the garlic, anchovies, thyme, fennel seeds, and coriander in a small saucepan, and smash the mixture against the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to make a rough paste. Add the wine, bring to a boil over high heat, and boil until reduced by about half, about 2 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a simmer.
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  5. The braise: Pour the seasoned liquid over the fennel, cover tightly with foil, and slide onto the middle rack of the oven. Braise until the fennel has collapsed and a small knife penetrates the core of the wedges with no resistance, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
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  6. Serving: If you reserved the feathery tops, chop them to give you about 2 tablespoons, and sprinkle them over the top of the braise. Serve warm or at room temperature.
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