Caramelized Fennel with Goat Cheese

There is Plenty of Fennel in SF

Growing up in San Francisco, there are a few smells that immediately remind me of my childhood: eucalyptus leaves, dried and crunchy under my feet in Glen Canyon, the grassy sour oxalis that took of my neighbors yard every summer, and the anise flavor of fennel under my nails after playing on the hillside next to my elementary school. Abandoned lots and unmanaged land always seems to fall victim to the fennel weed, with its beautiful and dangerous flowers that seems to produce more seeds than was thought possible.

Anise was never my favorite flavor as a kid and I continued to avoid it later in life as an adult. The smell always reminded me of the black jellybeans I left to rattle at the bottom of my Easter basket, or would immediately spit out in horror if I happened to be eating them absentmindedly.   It wasn’t until a few years ago that I gave fennel bulb the chance it deserved. A good friend sliced her fennel oh so thinly, shaved good, dry parmesan on top and tossed with lots of lemon and salt. This salad was so crunchy and fresh! The anise flavor was so subtle. I was hooked. I soon learned that cooking the bulb transformed it into something incredibly sweet and mild, but with more complexity than your average onion. I now often use fennel in place of onion in my cooking – it tends to provide a little ‘je ne sais quoi’ that often people can’t put their finger on. 

But, before you go hog wild in your neighborhood empty lot, be advised that our wild and weedy fennel does not produce the succulent bulbs that are so great to cook with. The good news is that Florence fennel grows very well in San Francisco backyards, and is bred to produce a sweet and white bulb. Grow in rich, moist, well-drained soil and do not allow the fennel to bolt (which can be caused by dry soil or overcrowding) as the bulb will not properly form. For more information about growing fennel, check Pam Peirce’s book, Golden Gate Gardening.

While I still pass on my black licorice bits to my mom, I have full embraced fennel, raw and cooked, into my kitchen. Here is my new favorite way to cook it, from my new favorite cookbook. I’ve used this caramelizing method after grilling the fennel and on endive as well. Enjoy!

Caramelized Fennel with Goat Cheese
By, Yotam Ottolenghi from the cookbook Plenty

4 small fennel bulbs
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 – 2 Tbsp sugar, depending how sweet you want it
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 small garlic clove, smashed
3/4 cup chopped dill (I omitted)
Grated zest of one lemon
Coarse sea salt and black pepper
Goat cheese (also great without)

Cut off the leafy fronds of the fennel bulbs, keeping some aside to garnish. Next, slice off the very end of the root and remove the tough outer layers, making sure the base still holds everything together. Cut each bulb lengthwise into 1/2 in. thick slices. They should look like a full, and beautiful cross section of the bulb.

Melt butter and olive oil (which will keep butter from burning) in a large frying pan over high heat. When the butter starts to foam, add a layer of sliced fennel. Do not overcrowd the pan and resist the urge to touch the fennel until one side has become light golden, about 2 minutes. Using tongs, turn the slices over and cook for another 2 minutes or so. Remove from the pan, add a bit more olive oil and butter if needed and repeat the process with the remaining raw fennel.

Once all the fennel is done and removed from the pan, reduce the heat, then add the sugar, fennel seeds, and plenty of salt and pepper to the pan. Fry for 30 seconds, adding a little more oil or butter if needed, until the sugar is dissolved, then return fennel to the pan and caramelize them gently. Remove from heat and toss with garlic.

To serve, toss the fennel in a bowl with the dill and lemon zest. Taste and adjust seasoning. Arrange on a serving plate, and top with goat cheese.