Once upon a time, I disliked fennel. When people are introduced to fennel for the first time, often they are told it tastes like black licorice, something people generally love or hate. Am I the only one who thinks it is sad that people are more familiar with the taste of a candy than of a vegetable? Anyway, I always hated black licorice. But with enough exposure to fennel, I love it! When generously dressed with olive oil and fresh lemon, it makes a great raw salad. It pairs well with cheese (shaved Pecorino Toscano or Parmesan Reggiano in particular), takes on a pleasant sweetness when partnered with other roasting vegetables, and complements braised chicken and simmered seafood. I challenge naysayers to keep trying. Hey, even I eat brussel sprouts (blech) if I perceive they have been prepared well.
I’ve been perusing the new cooking site on nytimes.com. So far, I’m a big fan. You can do a recipe search based on (single) ingredients, and many of the recipes are straightforward. A search of “fennel” led me to this Braised Chicken Thighs With Caramelized Fennel recipe, a near perfect match with my pantry, fridge, and CSA box. This recipe is particularly appealing because it creatively uses the fennel fronds as well as the bulbs, and even calls for fennel seeds. It is simple and delicious. The hardest part is slicing your fennel thinly. Fortunately, the caramelization process is forgiving of imperfect technique.
Braised Chicken Thighs With Caramelized Fennel
adapted from Andrew Scrivani of the The New York Times
Makes 4 servings
For the fennel frond puree:
1 large or 3 small cloves garlic, roughly chopped
½ teaspoon lemon zest, grated
1 teaspoon kosher salt
⅓ Cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 Cup fennel fronds from 2 large fennel bulbs
For the braised chicken and caramelized fennel:
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil, such as sunflower, grapeseed, or canola
4 bone-in chicken thighs (about 2 pounds)
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
2 large fennel bulbs, thinly sliced
1 onion, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon white wine, liquor, or beer
1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Trim fennel bulbs, separating fronds for the purée.
Combine about 1/2 cup fronds, chopped garlic, lemon zest and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a blender or food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Add 1/3 cup extra virgin oil and purée.
Halve fennel bulbs lengthwise. Carefully slice with a mandoline or sharp knife into thin slices. I’m not convinced mandoline is the way to go, because it struggles with the tougher leaves. Also, it would have been easier if my fennel bulbs were slightly larger.
Prepare chicken by seasoning with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. In a large skillet over high heat, heat 2 Tablespoons of vegetable oil. With high heat, you need an oil with a high smoke point. The original recipe called for extra virgin olive oil, but I always burn that. I pulled out sunflower oil for this.
Add chicken and brown until skin is crisp, about 8 minutes.
Transfer to a plate – it will be finished later on alongside the caramelized vegetables. You’ll be reusing pan with drippings for the vegetables. I transferred my chicken to a baking sheet and put it to the oven temporarily, because I thought it would need extra time being bone-in. Turns out it didn’t need that much time before it reached 165 F.
Add fennel seeds to skillet and stir. After 30 seconds, add fennel and onion and 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
Reduce heat to medium and let the vegetables go until they are caramelized, stirring occasionally (about 15 minutes). Add liquor (I used white wine, which was open) to deglaze the bottom of the skillet; cook until liquid has evaporated, about 1 minute.
Place chicken on top of the fennel-onion mixture. Pour a little water into the pan and cover. Reduce heat to medium-low and and cook until chicken is up to temperature. If there is any excess liquid, let it simmer off with the pan uncovered at the end. Stir in lemon juice.
Plate chicken atop vegetables and pour over the fennel frond purée.