A Reason to Dress for (Weekday) Dinner
May 11, 2014 § 1 Comment
The past month has not leant itself with any particular grace to the regular kitchen hours I am accustomed to keeping. Instead, working nine to five Monday through Friday has brought out a hitherto-unseen efficient (and sometimes simply reductive) version of Hannah-the-cook. Any spaces that fall in between tense scouting for an empty seat amid the sea of aggressive fellow commuters and finally getting my nose buried in The Two Towers is filled by mentally concocting the week’s meals.
I am still learning to navigate what foods are and are not off-limits. For example, my golden mid-day meal of a poached egg on something green or grainy was ruled out in the first round, being totally untransportable if the runny and warm yolk was to be kept intact. Relegating poached eggs to weekends still feels like a betrayal of an old friend. (On the other hand, it’s entirely possible I am still shaking off the sympathetic guilt induced by that part of the book where Frodo tricks Gollum into following him away from the Forbidden Pool. Guys, that book is so much more intense at almost-twenty four than it was at almost-fourteen.)
There are more rules of course, like no anchovies or garlic (heart-wrenching), and a thirty minute prep window, and all of them can be followed if the recipe to come speaks to you as it did to me on a weekday evening not long ago.
The dish is adapted from one of the first cooks I came to rely upon in the early days of college, Heidi Swanson. One of my dearest friends (and my roommate at the time) introduced me to Heidi’s work through her blog 101 Cookbooks and the James Beard Award-winning Super Natural Cooking books. We relied upon her so often in those days that we took to calling ourselves Heidi and Bruce (the husband she often alludes to) at moments of kitchen ridiculousness- so close those recipes made us feel to the author and so often we put ourselves in her kitchen clogs.
The following is one of the most elegant meals I have ever turned out in a matter of thirty minutes. Now that time frame presupposes you have already-cooked beans at your fingertips- but is a snap if you have some cooked-from-scatch ones in the freezer (as weirdos like me do) or have a can or two within arms’ reach. There is no worrying over caramelizing onions for an hour or stocking up on obscure ingredients- the beans don’t have to be Gigante, and the lemons don’t even have to be preserved.
The fennel and whole lemon are sliced as thinly as you can manage, then caramelized in a cast iron pan- mellowing the fennel’s licorice bite to a subtler, sweeter anise, and dulling the bitter notes of lemon pith. That pan is then deglazed with white wine, pepped up with chile flakes, and rounded out into a meal with cannellini beans. Finish it with salt and torn parsley. Then, if you’re really smart, you’ll do it like the British and spoon those dressy beans generously over thick slices of toast. I like to go at it with a knife and fork, but after such a classy preparation you’ve earned the right to eat with your hands (just be sure to point your pinky finger in the air as you take the first bite).
Caramelized Fennel and Lemon with Beans (On Toast)
Adapted from Heidi Swanson via 101 Cookbooks
*Note: Heidi’s recipe calls for two things which I messed about with. The first is GIANT BEANS, and the second is fresh dill to sprinkle over the finished dish. I am sure those beans are impressive when serving other people- but they don’t pile on a piece of toast as happily as smaller cannellini do. The dill would have taken the finished dish in a Spring-ier direction- but as I was craving a bit of heat and lacking fresh dill, chile flakes and parsley did the trick for me.
4-5 small fennel bulbs
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
Half a lemon, scrubbed and sliced thinly
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 cups cooked white beans (cannellini for me)
1/2 cup water (or reserved liquid from cooking the beans)
1/2 cup roughly chopped dill (or a good pinch of chile flakes and a 1/4 cup chopped parsley)
To prep the fennel, remove each bulb’s tough outermost layer. Trim each bulb’s base, and slice along the length into 1/2-inch thick wedges.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the olive oil. When the oil starts to ripple and move away from the center of the pan, add the fennel. Scatter the wedges across the surface of the pan rather than gathering them into a clump, and let them sit without stirring until the sides touching the pan caramelize and brown a bit, roughly 2 minutes or so. Stir and cook for another 2 minutes or so, until the fennel has cooked through. Add the honey, chile flakes if using, lemon, salt, and wine to the pan, stirring to combine. Let the wine heat and reduce for a minute or so before adding the beans and water. Cook until the beans are warmed through, about 5 minutes.Serve over thick slices of hearty toast and sprinkle with chopped parsley and a good drizzle of olive oil- or if you are as lucky as me, avocado oil (which will make EVERYTHING you put it on absolutely luxurious).