Last night, I was looking for a recipe for a dinner party. First, I turned to my “Food To Dos” Pinterest board. Was there anything there that fit my mood? Nope. Next up, the host of blogs I frequent. Did I find any new material that piqued my palate? Still no. From there, I got tangled up in a mess of tabs, new windows, and futile Google searches. In a moment of grand frustration, I looked away from my screen, only to notice a dusty stack of cookbooks on my counter.
The first one I opened crackled as the spine stretched itself out. The smooth, thick pages grazed the tip of my thumb as I flipped from page to page, the quiet flicking noise whispering in my ear to go on. The glossy photos shimmered with the reflection of the kitchen light overhead and soon enough, I forgot about everything else, lost in the pages before me.
Cookbooks offer something the Internet doesn’t – an experience of directed discovery. The journey they take you on brings forth new ideas, not affirmation for what you already wanted. I could search for “fennel recipes” and find more than enough (actually, too much) material online. Instead, by picking up a cookbook that reflects my culinary personality, I stumbled upon what would become my dinner.
As my grandmother aptly described, reading a cookbook is “comforting.” Unlike a novel, which requires attention and focus, a cookbook allows your mind to wander, to consider how its stories might translate to your own kitchen, and to imagine your own twists and turns on the recipes before you. Food blogs offer a similar experience – a curated anthology of recipes, stories, and photos. But what they lack is a front and back cover – marking the beginning and end of a story, told through the lens of a careful selection of recipes. The story a cookbook tells is succinct and intentional while being packed with new ideas and sensory indulgences.
As the sun went down and my dinner party drew nearer, I settled on a menu incorporating some of my latest discoveries. The most memorable of those was this recipe for caramelized fennel from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty. The dreamy full-page photo showed cross sections of fennel bulbs being shallow-fried with dried fennel seeds and caramelized goodness. The wispy bits along the edges were charred and crispy looking while the meaty center held the pieces together.
The original recipe suggests serving the dish room temperature with goat cheese, but I went a different route with a cheese-less (I know, blasphemy) and toasty rendition.
I love how quick and easy this recipe is and how little fluff the ingredient list holds. Fennel takes nicely to caramelizing – its subtle sweetness brought to the next level with a little sugar. The addition of fennel seeds and dill gives the whole thing some added complexity and savory flavors.
I served mine hot, though I’m sure it’d stand up as a room temperature dish as Ottolenghi suggests. Goat cheese doesn’t sound like such a bad idea either…
Ingredients (serves 3 as a side)
3 fennel bulbs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
Sea salt & black pepper
1 sprig fresh dill
Remove the leafy ends of the fennel, leaving only the bulb and a little bit of the end. Cut the bulbs lengthwise into ½ inch thick slices.
Heat the butter and oil in a skillet over medium heat until the butter begins to bubble.
Add the fennel slices to the pan. Flip after about two minutes, or until the bottom side is a golden brown color with a few charred spots.
Repeat until all fennel has been pan-fried, adding more butter and oil as necessary.
Add the sugar, fennel seeds, salt, and pepper to the empty skillet and use a rubber spatula to incorporate into the butter and oil left in the pan. Once the texture is uniform and a little sticky, add the fennel back to the pan and toss to coat.
Serve in a bowl or on a plate and garnish with fresh dill.