Braising is something of a lost art, which is a shame because it isn’t at all difficult to do. Learn a couple of basic moves and you’ll be rewarded with a succulent, richly flavored, rustic dish perfect for Passover.
A proper braise is composed of even more basic cooking methods. First you sear the heck out of your main ingredient to develop those beautiful browned flavors. Then you remove it from the pot, quickly sweat your other vegetables, and return the main ingredient along with a small amount of flavorful liquid. With the lid on and the heat lowered, everything steams until tender while the flavors marry and the sauce emulsifies into silky goodness.
The most common choice of supporting vegetables is mirepoix — carrots, onions and celery. In this case I omit the celery because it might muddy the flavor of the fennel.
Fennel pollen, if you can get it, is pretty amazing stuff. The aroma is like summer in Provençe in a jar. It is rather expensive but a pinch goes a long way. This dish is just fine without it, but if you are in the mood to gild the lily, I highly recommend it.
Serves 4 as a side dish
Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil plus additional for garnish
2 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed and halved lengthwise, fronds reserved for garnish
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 white onion, thinly sliced
1-1/2 cups sliced carrots (1/4" thick coins)
Crushed red pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Zest and juice of 1 mandarin orange
1/4 cup dry vermouth (kosher for Passover)
Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon
Optional: fennel pollen
In a pot with a tight-fitting lid, big enough to hold the fennel in a single layer, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. (A Dutch oven is ideal for this recipe.) When the oil is shimmering hot, lay the four fennel halves in the oil, cut side down. Sear until quite well browned, about 5 minutes. Flip and cook for another couple of minutes on the rounded sides.
Remove the fennel to a plate, leaving the oil behind in the pot. Lower the heat to medium low. Add the garlic, onion, carrots, a big pinch of crushed red pepper, several generous grinds of black pepper, and the salt. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 3 minutes, until the onions start to soften.
Add the orange zest and juice, the vermouth, and 1/2 cup water and stir, scraping the bottom to incorporate the delicious caramelized brown bits (fond). Put the fennel back in the pot, cut side up, on top of the onions and carrots. Cover the pot and braise until the fennel is completely tender when probed with a knife. This could be anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the bulbs. During the braise, adjust the heat so there is a good, steady amount of steam in the pot, but not so much that all the liquid boils off. Add a bit more liquid if needed.
To serve, transfer the fennel bulbs onto a serving platter. Spoon the carrots, onions and sauce over the fennel. Garnish with a generous drizzle of good olive oil, more freshly ground pepper, some flaky salt, the fennel fronds, and the optional fennel pollen.