Friday, March 23

Maple Braised Fennel

Fern Glen Inn •

March is maple syrup month. Usually, anyway. It's the transition time from winter to spring—when the nights are cold but the days are warm and sunny—that makes the sap run in the maple trees, sweet and clear and abundant. Usually. This March has been different.

For the past couple of weeks we've had record warm days with temperatures reaching above 20°C and night time lows staying above the freezing mark. This has curtailed the sugar bush operators around here but hopefully the early start they got to the season will make up for it. Plus, if we get a return to "normal" temperatures we could see the sap flowing again before the sugar shacks are closed up for the year.

In the meantime we've been enjoying this early taste of summer and the fact that the first day of Spring (on the calendar) actually felt like Spring! I think that's a first in the seven years we've been here. We've got some of the deck furniture out, the snow has cleared away and the grass is already turning green and it isn't even April yet!

But I haven't forgotten we're in the north and this preview of what's to come is just that: a preview. The cool evenings still call for comfort food and a cozy (if smaller) fire. I'm still cooking with winter vegetables at this time of year but I can't resist injecting a spring twist to the flavours. Maple Braised Fennel is the perfect side dish to bridge the transition of the seasons.

I'll warn you, it's not a very pretty dish. It's fitting, though, considering March is not a very pretty month. Both the dish and the month are rather muted in colour and messy in appearance but they offer other charms if you take the time to savour them.

Maple partners beautifully with the earthy, herbal notes of fennel. The cooking method—a blend of braising and roasting—mellows out the licorice flavour that fennel (also called anise) is known for. If you don't like fennel because the licorice taste is overwhelming when the bulb is used raw or blanched (often in salads), don't rule out this recipe. The vegetable takes on a completely different  character when cooked like this. You may just surprise yourself and discover a new favourite spring side dish.

Maple Braised Fennel

Serves 4
  • 2 fennel bulbs
  • 2 shallots
  • 3 tablespoons maple syrup, plus more for drizzling
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • coarse kosher salt
  • cracked black pepper
  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme or a pinch of dried thyme leaves
Preheat oven to 425°F.

Cut off and discard stalks from fennel. If the outer layer of bulb is tough, remove and discard it or use a vegetable peeler to pare off the dry/discoloured parts. Trim a slice off the root end just to freshen it. Cut each bulb lengthwise into eight wedges.

Peel and trim the shallots. Cut each lengthwise into six wedges. Put the fennel and shallot wedges into a 9"x13" lightly oiled baking dish.

In a small bowl, whisk together the maple syrup, vinegar, olive oil, a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. If using dried thyme leaves, stir those in, too.

Pour the maple mixture over the fennel and shallots and stir to coat. Distribute the vegetables evenly in the baking dish. Tuck in the thyme sprigs if using. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 25 minutes.

Uncover and give it a stir. Continue roasting, uncovered, until fennel is fork-tender and caramelized around the edges, about another 25-30 minutes, stirring once or twice. Drizzle with a small spoonful of maple syrup for the last 5-10 minutes if desired to encourage browning and bring the maple flavour forward.

Serve hot or warm alongside roasted or grilled lamb, pork or chicken; or serve at room temperature as part of an antipasto plate.


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