I was smitten by the close relationship that I witnessed between farmers and chefs in Los Angeles last week, and I wonder if that feeling wasn't underlined by an article I'd read a month earlier in the New York Times Magazine. The Lee Bros wrote a profile of Ben Friedman, one of the men who supplies New York City's top restaurants with the same produce that the L.A. restaurants have right in their own backyard (figuratively speaking).
I wonder, was I the only one who felt a little bad for Mr. Friedman? He seemed so harried, so nervous that the chefs he supplied would turn on him in an instant. The constant rush to be number one, the constant fear that his baby radishes or white potatoes would be rejected in favor of someone else's, the nerve-wracking judgment calls about what chefs will want before they even know themselves - that is a level of stress I can't really imagine. And it stood in such stark contrast to the relaxed nature of the transactions I saw last week.
Oh sure, I know that a lot goes on behind the scenes that I don't know about, that farmers' lives are more difficult - in entirely different ways - than Friedman's, and that it's silly to make sweeping generalizations about a world that I know little about, even if it does interest me more and more each day. But still, taken superficially, I think I'd rather be a Southern Californian farmer than a Manhattan produce supplier any day.
The article was capped by a simple recipe for braised fennel that barely caught my eye. It seemed too simple for a recipe, more like something that you might have learned from your grandmother, perhaps, and committed to memory from the many times you watched her make it. I put the recipe aside and promptly forgot about it. But after my 10-day food marathon in Los Angeles, in which precious few meals were cooked at home, I realized that that simple recipe might be just the thing to ease my way back into the kitchen again.
And it almost feels a little silly to write about here, because there's barely anything to it. But I have to tell you about it because, after all, though the recipe says that it serves four people, I ate the entire dish myself last night. And don't you agree that something like that warrants mentioning? Even if it does come at my own expense. (That I, ostensibly, ate four portions of vegetables perhaps mitigates my gluttony somewhat, but only barely.)
The recipes proceeds much like a beloved braised endive recipe that my father taught me years ago and that, almost quite literally, kept me alive when I lived in Paris. You brown some sliced fennel in a pan (though don't heed the recipe - use a cast-iron pot instead of a fry pan, unless you're lucky enough to own something like this, with sides and a top, you lucky dog), then deglaze the pan with chicken broth, Meyer lemon juice, and Meyer lemon zest. The heat goes down, the top goes on, and half an hour later you've got yourself a silky pile of tender fennel, transformed into creamy, luscious spears of vegetal goodness and spiked with the sweet-sour flavor of Meyer lemons (they are not crucial, I have to say - regular lemons would work just fine, too, though then you'd have to add a sprinkle of sugar to balance the acidity a bit. Just a sprinkle.).
The final touch, which really fine-tunes this dish, is a scattering of Parmigiano shavings (though gratings would be fine, too) on top. There's something about the rich, salty cheese bound into the slightly acidic sauce and mellowed fennel that elevates this into something special. It's simple and quick, but I wouldn't shy away from serving this at a dinner for friends, even. As it was, I topped a plain filet of tilapia (bread-crumbed and pan-fried) with the braised fennel, and though it seemed (before I took a bite) that this meal would end up one of those weird Monday night experiments that never end very well and where health and protein requirements win out over inspired flavor combinations, this actually was quite a delicious pairing. The fish, so mild and delicate, needed a lemony kick and some body to round out the meal, and the vegetables did the trick.
I was quite impressed with myself, and so, so happy to be cooking again. Tonight, unfortunately, while there's leftover tilapia for dinner, it sits naked and fennel-less on my plate. Sadly, I have no one to blame but myself.
Braised Fennel With Meyer Lemon and Parmesan
2 fennel bulbs, fronds attached
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup chicken broth
Grated peel and juice of 1 Meyer lemon
Parmesan to taste
1. Trim the fennel and roughly chop 1 tablespoon of the fronds. Halve each bulb through the core, then cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slices.
2. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and add just enough oil to coat the pan. When hot, cook half the fennel, without moving, until browned, about 3 minutes. Flip and cook 1 minute more. Transfer to a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Repeat with the remaining fennel, adding more oil to the pan if needed.
3. Return the skillet to medium-high heat. Add the fennel, broth, lemon rind and juice and bring to a boil. Simmer, covered, until tender, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a bowl. Raise the heat to high and reduce the sauce until syrupy, 3 to 5 minutes.
4. Fold the sauce and reserved fronds into the fennel and top with Parmesan. Serve warm or at room temperature.