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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

If You Grow It, I Will Come

So, fresh fennel really doesn't scream summer. I get it. Typically, it's thought of as a vegetable  most wildly available from autumn through spring. Well, think again. It can pop up at farmers markets in the early summer before it bolts and goes to seed. I stop by the farmers market two or three times a week, so not much gets by me. If someone plops a few bulbs of fennel between summer white cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and baby squash, I'm all in. Expect the unexpected. If you grow it, I will come.

While the bold licorice crunch of raw fennel is fine and dandy when shaved into salads or shredded into slaws, I prefer the softer subtle punch of cooked fennel. Braising and/or roasting fennel draws out the natural sugars and allows it to caramelize into tender anise-flavored fennel candy. That said, cooking it until tender doesn't always relegate fennel to an aromatic flavor boost for sleepy stews or braised meats. Come summertime, it can stand on its own.

Roasted Fresh Fennel with Marinated Sun Gold Tomatoes.

Roasting fennel straight up produces a nice charred crunch that lacks a little love. Sure, it's all fennely, but it's also somewhat  harsh.  I've found that a braise/roast combination allows the fennel to cook through and soften before it caramelizes.

I sliced the stalks from 2 medium sized Stonehedge Farm fennel bulbs (fronds reserved), removed the tough outer portions of the bulbs, sliced each bulb into quarters, and set them aside. After cutting the green tops from 3 Boyle County purple candy onions, I added them to the fennel quarters and tossed everything with extra virgin olive, salt, and cracked black pepper before tumbling them into a shallow saute pan. I splashed the vegetables with a 1/2 cup white wine, covered the pan with foil, and slid the pan into a preheated 425 degree oven.  After 25 minutes, I removed the foil, flipped the fennel quarters, and returned them to the oven to roast for an additional 30 minutes. During the last 10 minutes, I brushed the quartered bulbs on all sides with equal portions of fresh lemon juice and local honey.

When they were beautifully caramelized and softened, I pulled them from the oven to cool.

Although the throngs of vine-ripened large tomatoes haven't quite stormed the market, multi colored heirloom cherry tomatoes have definitely arrived. I quartered 1 pint of Marion County Sun Gold tomatoes and tossed them into a bowl. After showering the little jewels with snipped chives, I seasoned them with salt and cracked black pepper. I didn't want to get all fiddly with an emulsified vinaigrette, so I simply drizzled the tomatoes with 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil and 3 tablespoons of white wine vinegar before tossing them with the broken vinaigrette.

After an hour or so, I tumbled the marinated quartered tomatoes over the fennel and finished with a few whispers of delicate fresh fronds.

Served at room temperature, the quirky salad meets side dish would pair wonderfully with grilled meat, chicken or fish. The subdued sweet anise undertones of the caramelized fennel poked through the light agro dulce (sweet and sour) glaze of the lemon and honey.  While the bits of char added slight candied licorice crunch, the perky tomatoes provided bright sun kissed freshness.

Roasted fennel with tomatoes.
An unexpected summer scream.

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