Orange Braised Fennel

The rains have come again, bringing with them all sorts of delicious spring greens. I’ve spent the past few weeks starting lettuce and spinach (to be moved into the garden beds once this cold snap blows through), and am starting to notice all the delicious edibles popping up around empty lots and fields around the city. Miner’s lettuce and three-cornered leeks and lamb’s quarters and SO MUCH FENNEL.

One of my favorite forage-ables is fennel. It has so many culinary uses, and is so versatile. Yes, the bulbs don’t get as big as the ones in the grocery store, but to me that makes it even better. The seeds are fabulous fresh or dried in Italian foods (I put ridiculous amounts of it into my tomato sauce). The greens are delicious in salads. Eaten young, the bulbs are sweet and crisp, and don’t get tough and stringy like the big, older bulbs can. They are also SO EASY TO FIND, what with being EVERYWHERE.
I found this recipe a while back and knew I had to try it. I’ll tell you, Helene’s recipes are pretty spot-on and I tried to follow her directions as closely as possible. Unfortunately, I’m not the sort to have fancy liqueurs around the house, so I had to improvise with a little vodka.
So now I’ll let you in on an embarrassing little secret: I couldn’t wait for the neighborhood (or backyard) fennel to get big enough for this recipe. I bought the pictured fennel bulbs at the farmer’s market because I was impatient. The good news? Now I know the recipe is wonderful, and when the local fennel catches up, I will be ready.

Orange Braised Fennel
2-3 Tbsp sunflower oil
6-8 small bulbs fennel, greens removed
1/2 c fresh-squeezed orange or grapefruit juice
1 tsp orange zest
1-2 sprigs fresh lemon thyme, leaves picked off the stems
1 c water
1/4 c vodka
2 pods star anise
salt and pepper to taste
Cut off the ends of the fennel bulbs to remove any of the root, but leave enough that the pieces will not fall apart when they are cooking. Trim off the stems. Depending on the size of the bulbs, cut them into halves or quarters, again making sure to leave enough of the base on each piece that they hold together.
Juice an orange and reserve the zest. You’ll want to have at least 1/2 cup of juice. Let the zest soak in 1/4 cup of vodka, along with two pods of star anise, the thyme, and some fresh-cracked pepper. Add in the orange juice (and try not to drink it, even though it smells AMAZING).

Heat a large cast-iron (or other non-stick) pan with a few tablespoons of oil and sautee the fennel until it it is beginning to brown on all sides. Once it is golden, deglaze the pan with the vodka/zest/juice mixture, gently tossing the fennel pieces to coat them. Let this cook over medium heat for a few minutes to cook off the booze, then add about 1/2 cup of water and turn the heat down to low. Let this simmer for about 40 minutes, or until the fennel is fork-tender and the liquid has mostly evaporated and formed a glaze. Season with salt, and more pepper if needed.
If the fennel is still a little raw, add more water (or orange juice) and let it cook down a bit more until it is soft.

Serve this as a side dish with duck or pork, or as a topping for baguette slices spread with cream cheese or brie. Delicious.
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