I am a relative newcome to the Fennel Fan Club. This is not a vegetable that was common in our family and for a long time I avoided it: from the smell and look it seemed to combine the flavours and texture of celery and black jelly bean, not a happy combination. As I've grown older and wiser, I've come to realize that anise is a lovely flavour and I was happily surprised one day to discover that raw fennel, thinly sliced, is a delicious and refreshing nibble with a glass of wine before dinner.
I still had some doubts about the wisdom of cooking fennel, though: that lingering impression of celery was hard to banish. (In case you can't tell, I can think of few things more disgusting than soggy cooked celery...) But I made some braised leeks the other day and the Critic against his better judgement tried it and liked it....so I decided to sacrifice a head of fennel to the Gods of Experimentation and try braising it.
Don't I make this sound like a trip to the arctic? I really should be more adventuresome in my cooking if just braising a new vegetable can put me in such a spin. Bear with me, though: it was a very good experiment.
There are a lot of recipes out there marrying fennel in its various forms (fresh, cooked, seeds, chopped fresh fronds) with salmon in ITS various forms (fresh, smoked, raw and cooked). I didn't see this one anywhere so I'm going to claim it as my own. It was delightful and so I'm rather proud of it. The fennel complimented the salmon very well, neither flavour outclassing the other. And the juices from the braising were the basis for a delicious creamy fennel sauce.
Salmon Steaks on Braised Fennel
2 salmon steaks
1 bulb of fennel
2 Tbs butter
1/2 cup marsala wine
1/3 cup crème fraîche
salt and pepper
Slice the fennel in pieces just under a centimeter (half an inch) in width. Melt the butter in a frying pan and when it starts to froth add the fennel. Turn up the heat a little as you initially want to brown the fennel slightly, even if it means slightly browned butter. Turn them over and brown the other side. Add the wine, scrape any brown bits from the bottom of the pan, turn down the heat and cover. You'll want to cook the fennel until it is tender but not soggy. I was relieved to find that the texture was not at all stringy and almost but not quite completely unlike braised celery. WHEW!
As the fennel will need to simmer for a while, you can start preparing any other vegetables you are serving (in my case, carrots) and then prepare the salmon steaks. Rinse them off and cook them in a little olive oil or butter. Or you could bake them. How you cook them isn't too important, as they will be getting their flavour from the fennel sauce. You might want to salt and pepper them a little, though, and maybe add a squeeze of lemon juice.
Once the salmon and the fennel are done, place each steak on a bed of braised fennel and place the plates in a warm oven for a few minutes. Add the crème fraîche to the fennel pan and stir well with the braising juices. If the marsala has completely cooked away, you might want to slosh in another little bit. Cook down until slightly thickened and taste for salt and pepper. Pour over the salmon steaks and serve!
The interesting thing about this recipe to me is the sauce. I love braised belgian endives, but have always found it frustrating that the delicous liquor left in the pan doesn't get absorbed by the endives. I lap up every precious drop of the liquid after eating the endives, but have always felt that there must be a better way to use it. With the braised fennel, I have found that use! The sauce didn't taste all that impressive on its own to me, but once it was poured over the salmon and the fennel pieces it came into its own: savoury and refreshing and a perfect compliment to each.
So it may not have been as brave as a trip to the arctic but it certainly was a success. Even the Critic (who feels as I do about the idea of braised celery) thought it was delicious and ate all his vegetables. Isn't he a good boy?