An Italian favorite, sliced fennel bulb is sautéed until lightly browned, then served over pasta with goat cheese, lemon zest and fennel fronds. Recipe below.
The idea for this dish began with two words on a restaurant menu. We were having dinner a few weeks ago at Telegraph Restaurant and Wine Bar in our neighborhood, and Marion chose seared escolar with stuffed cherrystone clam, uni butter, caramelized fennel, orange vinaigrette and tarragon from chef Johnny Anderes’s inventive, seasonally driven menu. Caramelized fennel. It was buried in the middle of the description, but a standout on the plate.
This wasn’t the first time we’d eaten fennel (yes, I got a bite too). In fact, Marion has occasionally used it raw in salads. But caramelizing it—cooking it in a skillet until it browns, bringing out its natural sweetness—was something we hadn’t tried. Over the next couple of weeks, caramelized fennel kept popping up in our conversations as we tried to figure out what to do with it. We thought it deserved more than its usual side dish treatment. Marion suggested pasta, and a meal was born.
Fennel is one of those neither fish nor fowl plants. It’s primarily classified as an herb, for its feathery fronds and seeds that both deliver a pleasant, slightly bitter anise or licorice flavor. But it’s also used as a vegetable, at least the bulbous base is, and is especially popular with Italian cooks, who call it finocchio.
Part of the reason I’ve never cooked with fennel is, well, look at it. Yes, I know all parts are edible and that it has a nice crunch and the aforementioned flavor. But it also looks like an invitation to a wrestling match when you see it in the produce department. Or did, anyway, to me—until I made this dish. The truth is, it could hardly be easier to cook with.
Just trim off the root bottom and the stalks and the fronds up top and you’ve got something like an onion, ready to be sliced. When I did this for this dish, I was left with a smallish bulb that didn’t look like it would be enough for two servings. But when I sliced it, I saw that I had plenty:
Figuring out exactly how to caramelize the fennel bulb was a little less straightforward. Cooking times in the recipes I consulted varied wildly, from a scant minute or two to as much as an hour. Even cooking methods varied. Most were stovetop sautéing (which I opted for), but some went for steaming in a covered pan first or even oven roasting. And more than one recipe involved adding sugar to the pan, which I viewed as semi-cheating. You’re supposed to be caramelizing the natural sugars in the fennel, after all. It was also unnecessary, as I learned; the fennel was plenty sweet and browned nicely on its own. Unlike onions, you don’t need to achieve a deep brown with fennel. In 7 to 10 minutes, it had a beautiful light brown finish with some darker areas and was tender and delicious.
This recipe uses fennel both as a vegetable and an herb; the finished dish is topped with fennel fronds. I mentioned the pleasant anise or licorice flavor. That is most pronounced in raw fennel. When you cook it, that subsides into a subtle hint as the sweetness comes forward. The fronds reintroduce some of that flavor. The mild goat cheese adds a creamy richness to the dish, along with protein. The lemon juice and zest give it a needed bit of brightness. And in keeping with Marion’s week-long corn-free challenge, this was one of our corn-free meals.
Caramelized Fennel with Fettuccine and Goat Cheese
1 whole fennel bulb (about 1 pound before trimming)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 large onion, sliced
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice, plus zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup crumbled goat cheese, about 2 ounces (see Kitchen Notes)
6 ounces dried fettuccine or other ribbon pasta
Start a large pot of water for the pasta. Using a sharp knife, slice off the root end of the bulb and the stalks with the fronds. Reserve the stalks and fronds. Slice the bulb in half lengthwise and peel off the tough outer layer. Cut out the inner core and slice the bulb halves lengthwise into about 1/4-inch slices.
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium flame. Add the olive oil, then the fennel bulb slices, arranging in a single layer. Cook for about 2 minutes, then turn the slices. Cook for another 2 minutes, then add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Cook until fennel is nicely browned, another 3 to 6 minutes, turning occasionally and stirring the onions to avoid burning them. When the fennel is sufficiently browned, turn off the heat, stir in the lemon juice and cover the pan.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package instructions, being careful not to overcook it. Reserve some of the cooking water and drain the pasta quickly, returning it to the pot while still dripping.
Divide pasta between two shallow bowls. If it seems dry, drizzle a teaspoon or so of the reserved cooking water over it. Top with caramelized fennel, being sure to include some of the olive oil. Top with goat cheese and lemon zest. Using scissors, snip some of the reserved frond over each bowl. Serve.
Use good goat cheese. Don’t go for the pre-crumbled variety; it’s usually a little dry and never as fresh tasting. We happened upon some Purple Haze goat cheese made by Cypress Grove Chevre. It includes fennel pollen and lavender (hence the name).