This dish was inspired by the fennel stew from Heidi Swanson’s Near and Far. I envisioned its flavours as a quick-and-easy roasted side-dish, one that would allow you to throw all of the ingredients onto a sheet pan, stick it in the oven and be done with it. I tried roasting the vegetables, I tried braising the vegetables, and then I tried braising just the fennel, and roasting the leeks, onions and garlic chips separately. This two-technique process was a clear textural winner. Braising the fennel, a vegetable that can be fibrous and chewy, gives it a silky smooth melt-in-your-mouth texture that roasting doesn’t achieve, while roasting the leeks produces an irresistible crispy-crunchy topping that braising would leave soggy (you might want to double this component, its hard not to snack on!). I dropped Heidi’s feta and black-olive garnish, transformed the simmered beans into a creamy hummus and added a chile-fennel oil to reinforce the anise flavour that was mellowed by the braising. Braised fennel with crispy charred leeks and chili-fennel oil on hummus is not the sort of quick-and-easy recipe I intended to create. But, you should still make it. Let me explain.
I’ve said it before, I struggle with over-complicating my recipes and meal planning. I often bite off more than I can chew, and end up throwing out food I never got around to making, or find myself paralyzed at the grocery store when a few of the items from my carefully planned and specific list are not in stock or don’t look as fresh as I would like. I need to simplify. On the other hand, I’m sceptical of recipes that claim to be 20 or 30 minute meals. I find they often significantly under-estimate the time it takes to prep the ingredients; only consider one component of the meal, leaving out the time it takes to make the side or the grain and/or salad that needs to go with it; or resort to too many processed ingredients, essentially mixing together a number of jars and cans of things - which I don’t want to do. Is anyone actually a cooking dinner, made entirely from whole food ingredients, from scratch, start to finish, in 30 minutes?
So I’m trying to work out a way to simplify my meal planning and cook more “quick-and-easy” food, that works for me without attempting to cut my cooking time down to nothing. To this end, Carla Laila Music’s new cookbook Where Cooking Begins has been a great resource. Carla describes an approach to food that involves keeping a pantry well stocked with basics that could provide structure and flavour to a wide variety of meals (she orders these online), and shopping regularly for the “fun stuff” - the proteins and seasonal produce. She suggests shopping more frequently, for fewer items, and depending less on premeditated recipe plans, finding inspiration, instead, from what you find at the market and relying on your pantry staples to help you pull it together into a meal. For Carla, cooking begins with the ingredients, not the recipe. Shopping and cooking recipe-less is something that will take some practice for me, but having less fresh food in the house at any one time and relying on pantry staples to make use of what is left is transforming how I cook.
Setting aside the caveat that, depending on our circumstances, we all need to prepare, or order, extremely quick food sometimes, evaluating the “quick-and easy” factor of our food at the level of an individual recipe can be short-sighted. Yes, we make just one recipe at a time, but feeding ourselves and our families is a continuous task, we will need more later. Recipes that take time can be part of a quick-and-easy cooking strategy if the results of the labour that goes into them can be stretched out over multiple future meals. A lot of effort-saving cooking strategies work this way: spending the weekend prepping meals or ingredients for the week ahead, making big batches of your favourite recipes to freeze for future meals, and choosing recipes - like this braised fennel - that contain mini-recipes within them that can be used both for the meal you are making, and for future meals. In other words, there is more than one way for meals to be quick-and-easy, sometimes, a little more work now, means less work later.
I recently saw this sort of recipe element referred to as “hold-overs,” and it is a wonderful concept. They’re leftovers in that they are meant to be eaten again, except they will be used differently from how they are used in the original recipe. Such repurposed leftovers are great for those of us, like myself, who tire quickly of eating the same thing over and over. What I love about this sort of cooking is, even if you spend considerable time in the kitchen, your effort is stretched out over multiple meals. A bit more time for this meal to really get the textures right, or develop more flavour, to make enough for a large number of people, or whatever the justification for putting a bit more time and effort into a recipe might be, but spend less time-per-meal, without having to resort to pre-made or processed ingredients.
This recipe contains two “hold-overs” for future meals: a shortcut canned-chickpea hummus and a chile-fennel oil. Honestly, before attempting to incorporate Carla’s approach to shopping and cooking, I would sometimes read recipes that made these sort of suggestions with scepticism “keep the leftovers of this salad dressing or sauce to have on hand for whatever.” Despite my good intentions, the leftover components would rarely be used. But, one benefit of having fewer ingredients in the house, of not meal planning quite so far ahead, is that it is easier to see what you have. It is easier to open the fridge and think, “oh yea, that chile oil, maybe I’ll just drizzle some of that on this toast I have here.”
- If you are not vegan, serve this dish alongside fish - I especially love to pair fennel with salmon - or add some crispy smashed potatoes or cooked grains and a simple green salad and serve it as a vegan or vegetarian main.
- Serve the leftover hummus and chile oil on toast for a quick weekday breakfast, adding some sautéed greens and a poached or fried egg on top for a weekend brunch.
- If you want to downplay the anise flavour of the fennel, you could use this Sichuan chile oil instead of the chile-fennel oil. Both keep well for a long time in the fridge and function like crunchy homemade hot sauces to add to quick pasta or noodle dishes, roasted vegetables or breakfast toasts!
Braised Fennel with Crispy Charred Leeks and Chile-Fennel Oil
Silky smooth braised fennel and an irresistibly crispy-crunchy roasted leeks, onions and garlic chip topping, drizzled with a chile-fennel oil and served over a creamy hummus. Serve as a side to fish or chicken, or add a salad, potatoes or grain and serve as a vegan main. If you don’t count olive oil, salt and pepper, its a 10 ingredient dish, most of which you probably have in your pantry, and both the shortcut canned-chickpea hummus and chile-fennel oil can be saved and used for future meals - they make a great breakfast hummus toast!
Makes: 4-6 servings
- 1/2 cup olive or canola oil
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 2 tablespoon red chile flakes
Fennel & Leeks
- 1 Leek, carefully cleaned, halved, and cut into 1/2 inch slices.
- 1/2 large onion, thinly sliced
- 4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced crosswise
- 2 tb olive oil, divided
- 2 bulbs fennel, bottoms and stalks removed (soup), fronds reserved, and cut into 3/4 - 1 inch wedges, keeping some of the base in-tact so they hold together
- Salt & pepper, to taste
- 1 cup no-salt-added vegetable (or chicken, if you aren't vegan) broth.
- 1 540 ml/19oz can of chickpeas, with liquid reserved. You should have about 3/4 cup of liquid and 372 grams or 2 cups of chickpeas
- 2/3 cup tahini
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
- 1/4 tea salt
- Make the Chile-Fennel Oil: Heat the olive oil, fennel seeds, and red chile flakes over medium-low heat until oil begins to sizzle - 5 min - Be careful not to take these too far. You won’t hear much of a sizzle, but you will be able to see small bubbles around the seeds and chile flakes. Turn down the heat to low and allow the seeds to infuse into the oil for another 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside in a heat-proof dish.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Prep the Leek Mixture: Chop off both end of the leek. Slice in half lengthwise and carefully clean out the dirt from the layers (there can be a lot of dirt inside). Slice crosswise into 1/2 inch slices. You can discard the green parts, but I like to use them. Toss the leeks, onion and garlic slices with 1 tb of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. Spread onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and set aside.
- Sear and Braise the fennel: Chop off the bottoms and stalks (you can save these in the freezer for making stock), set aside the fronds. Cut the bulbs into 1“ wedges and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Melt 1 tb oil and 1 tb butter in large skillet on medium-high heat. Sear fennel wedges for 2-3 minutes on each side, in batches if necessary. Add stock to the skillet, bring to boil, lower the heat down to a simmer, cover the skillet and allow to braise for 20 minutes, or until the fennel is easily pierced with a fork. Remove cover, raise heat back to medium and reduce the liquid to a glaze, about 30-40 minutes.
- Roast Leeks: Meanwhile, put the tray of leeks in the oven and roast for 35-40 minutes until dark and crispy. Check on the leeks often towards the end of cooking time - don’t be afraid to let them char blacker than you might think, you are looking for that bitter char flavour to compliment the sweet braised licorice-flavoured leeks and the spice from the chile-oil.
- Make the hummus: in a blender or food processor, blitz together the chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, garlic, salt and 1/2 cup of the reserved chickpea liquid. Add more of the reserved liquid, a tablespoon at a time, until you reach your desired consistency.
- To serve: Spread the hummus on the bottom of individual plates, or one large serving platter. Top with the braised fennel, sprinkle the roasted leek mixure over the fennel, and top it off with a generous drizzle of the chile-fennel oil.