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Column Mon Apr 20 2009
I really like the alchemy that can happen when you take just a couple of ingredients, mix them together, and cook them until they all turn into one harmonized thing. Sometimes this happens when some sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil are drizzled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and sprinkled with salt and pepper. But we're still in the winter dearth of produce, so that dish will have to wait for a few months.
Onions and olive oil have the same alchemical reaction when the onion is sliced really thin and cooked slowly in olive oil and salt for a long time. All of the juices from the onions come out and create a syrupy dish that is ready for a touch of high heat to caramelize the sugars. In that case, three ingredients couldn't have tasted more different than their raw state. I recently took that idea and created something that I found magical and delicious and involving fennel.
Now I like a good bite of black licorice and I've been known to enjoy a Harvey Wallbanger, but I'm just not that into fennel. I like the occasional raw stick unadorned as part of a crudite platter. But baked fennel just doesn't get me doing the happy food dance. Maybe I need to try it cooked other ways, but I've always classified it as food I'd eat if it was around, as opposed to food I will go out of my way for. But when the person you live with eats it by the fistful, you begin to feel guilty for dissing his tastebuds. So I did some recipe searching recently and didn't come up with anything that sounded like a must try, but when I read that there is a fair amount of sugar and water in fennel, just like in onions, and that it would caramelize well I had my "A-ha!" moment and headed out to the store. I had no idea what it would taste like when I was done or what I would do with it once I had it, but I decided that a caramelized paste of fennel, onion, and tomato (for acid and color) would be in my future shortly.
And once I had my Dutch oven filled with more than a quart of deliciousness I began to think of what to do with it and had a few ideas that just struck me as magical. And once those dishes were prepared and I got the "Hey, you should definitely do this again" reaction, I knew I had a successful dish on my hands. And the dish is easy to make, thankfully. It does take some time to simmer down, but that's mostly unattended time so it doesn't feel like you're working for hours.
Caramelized Onion and Fennel
2 heads of fennel
2 large Vidalia or other sweet onion
2 Roma tomatoes
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon of salt
Cut the green part of the fennel and discard. Cut the base off the fennel and discard. Separate the stalks from the center (it grows similar to celery) and rinse well to remove any dirt. Slice the ends off the onion and remove the papery outer layers. Cut the two tomatoes in half and remove the stem and seeds. Cut this into large chunks.
The ideal thing now is to make very thin slices, about 1/4" thick, of the fennel and onion. You can easily (although it's time-consuming) do this with a knife or a box grater with a slicer side, or you can go completely lazy and using a slicing blade on a food processor if you have one. Either way once you've got your very large piles of sliced vegetables you're going to place your Dutch oven or other large and heavy bottom pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Once the oil has warmed up, you'll add all of the vegetables and sprinkle the salt on top. Cover it and let it cook for 2 minutes. Remove the lid, reduce the heat as low as it will go, and stir so that all of the vegetables are now coated with oil. Replace the lid and stir again after another 3 minutes. Then after that you should just have to stir every 10-15 minutes to keep it from sticking. If the pan seems dry you can add more oil to it. Eventually you'll start to see the contents shrinking as they release their water into the pan. Let the contents cook for about an hour. I'd suggest staying nearby so you can smell if things start to burn. After about an hour you should have a very juicy mixture. Turn the heat up slightly and stir frequently for about 5 minutes while the liquid evaporates. What you're left with is a delicious paste that can be added to almost anything to make it better.
Makes about 1 quart. The recipe can easily be halved if desired.
You can take about 1/4 cup of tomato paste, mix in a couple tablespoons of the mix and serve it on pasta. You can mix 1/4 cup of the mixture into your rice cooker with the dried rice and water to create a tasty side dish. You can mix the paste in with mashed potatoes. You can spread it on a piece of rye bread that has been toasted. You can serve it as a warm dip with crackers or pita chips. You can eat it on a sandwich with just some cheese. Or you can cover a piece of white fish with it and bake it in the oven to make Caramelized Fennel and Onion Covered Tilapia. Or you could purchase a pre-made tart crust and make Caramelized Fennel and Onion tart.
Caramelized Fennel- and Onion-Covered Tilapia
1 4-6 ounce Tilapia filet
1/4 cup of caramelized fennel and onion
sprinkle of salt and pepper
1/2 tablespoon of olive oil for coating the pan
Preheat your oven to 350-degrees F. If using a cast-iron skillet place it over medium heat and let it warm up. Other skillets or casserole dishes don't need to warm up first. Once it is warm, turn off the flame and swirl oil over the bottom of the skillet. Place the fillet in the skillet and cover it with the spread. Shake the skillet back and forth to make sure the fish can move, if it can't, gently nudge it with a spatula. Place it in the center of the oven and let it cook for about 20 minutes. Depending on the thickness of your fish and the type of dish you're cooking it in you'll have varying cooking times. Simply move some of the spread away from a small spot on the fish, stick your fork into the filet and see if it starts to flake apart. It should be opaque clear through. Return it to the oven and let it cook for a few more minutes if necessary. Once it is finished, remove it from the skillet and place it over rice with a small green salad for a completely simple but totally delicious dinner.
Caramelized Fennel and Onion Tart
1 pre-made tart shell
1 cup of fennel and onion spread
1/4 cup (or less) of grated parmesan cheese
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F (or according to the directions on your pie shell package). Spread the fennel and onion spread over the bottom of the crust and sprinkle with the cheese. Place it in the center of your oven for 45-50 minutes, or until the edges of the pie get golden brown and crispy. Makes a great addition to scrambled eggs for brunch, or it goes remarkably well with a bowl of soup for lunch.
No matter what you decide to do with it, you can keep the puree in an air-tight jar in your refrigerator for a couple of weeks. Or you can freeze it in smaller portions that will keep for 3-6 months. No matter what you do with your alchemical creation, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do, even if it doesn't inspire you to do the happy food dance.