The idea of an “ultimate” recipe seems very shortsighted. Too often, convinced that I have discovered the best possible version of a thing, another recipe quickly surfaces to prove me wrong. It’s why, when it comes to food, I try not to abuse superlatives, and only rarely indulge in old favorites. (It’s also why I have little patience for Tyler Florence.)
But since I first tasted this fennel, it’s been hard to summon the energy—even the curiosity—for other fennel recipes. Indeed, each time I spot a fennel bulb, with it’s forest of green fronds, my thoughts immediately boomerang to Andrew Carmellini and his orange-sumbuca wizardry.
I know there are other fennel recipes out there. And one day I’ll get around to trying them—perhaps even stumble across a new favorite. But right now I am quite content believing that this is the best fennel I have ever tasted.
Fennel with Orange and Sambuca
Adapted from Urban Italian, by Andrew Carmellini
3 fennel bulbs
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, peeled, halved, and sliced
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed with the flat of a knife
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup Sambuca, plus 1 tablespoon for finishing [I don't use the latter]
1/4 cup golden raisins, soaked to rehydrate for 20 minutes and soaking water reserved
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
Zest of one orange
2 tablespoons toasted and seasoned breadcrumbs [see Carmellini's recipe for "Crumb's Yo!"]
Cut the tops off the fennel where the green stalks meet the white bulb. Trim the ends off the bulbs and cut the bulbs in half lengthwise. Remove the outer layers and anything that’s browned, and trim away any excess stem. Cut each half into eighths. Chop the fronds and reserve.
In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add the onion slices and sweat them, stirring, until they start to soften—but don’t let them brown.
Add the fennel, garlic, fennel seeds, and red pepper flakes, and season with salt and pepper. Deglaze the pan with the Sambuca, and cook until the liquid in the pan has evaporated, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Add the raisins and the raisin-soaking water, orange juice, and chicken broth. Cook, periodically turning the fennel and glazing it with liquid from the pan, until the liquid is reduced by three quarters. (It should be a thin layer on the bottom of the pan.) The liquid will thicken and the fennel will be well glazed, shiny, fattened, and softened.
Remove the pan from the heat, pick out the garlic clove, and mix in the chopped fronds and 1 tablespoon of the Sambuca (if desired). Transfer the fennel to a serving platter and sprinkle with breadcrumbs and orange zest.