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Awaiting Spring


A few days ago, it snowed in Seattle. And the days leading up to it were cold with a capital C. I broke out my puffy vests and started wearing my wool hat on walks to the library. While I’ve been snatching up daffodils and tulips whenever I’m at the market, let’s just say that it’s not boating weather here yet. But it’s close. We’re on the brink and it seems everyone can sense it: Saturday afternoon the cherry blossoms popped out from every street corner and the sun was gracing the wood slats of our upstairs room. On Sunday we hiked to Wallace Falls where there were patches of unexpected snow, but there was also genuine bursts of sun and fresh pine air. Hikers were draped over rocks sharing their bagged lunches and at one point on our descent, we sat towards the side of the trail and closed our eyes, just soaking in the tentative warmth. There were dogs off leash, families snapping photos, and one lone frisbee. See? we’re on the brink. 

The most recent issue of Kinfolk had a piece called “Spring Renewal,” in which Erin Propp and Travis Rogers discuss ways to renew themselves at home and get ready for spring, including drying laundry on the line, eating in season, planting a garden, visiting a neighbor, and trying a new food. I used to get a lot of satisfaction from making these sorts of lists, but then it comes to the end of the season and I ultimately end up feeling disappointed by my lack of progress, deciding to push certain things off until the next year. While it’s always wonderful to daydream, it’s good to stand firmly planted in the reality of your day-to-day life, too. And as much as I wish that ours included drying clothes on a line, it just doesn’t. So instead of mapping out specific goals and plans for the spring and summer, Sam and I have simply said we want to get outside more. See more of the region this year. Last spring and summer I was immersed in the writing of the book and was pretty diligent about not taking much time off on the weekends. But this spring is a different story. Each passing day is just a little bit longer, our lawn almost needs mowing, and I ordered my first ever batch of seeds from the Burpee catalog (radishes, carrots, snap peas, and kale!). We’re ready.

The above few photos were taken on Whidbey Island where we recently got out on a very chilly beach walk and had mussels,  garlic bread and a pint of dark beer in Coupeville. We both had pretty hearty to-do lists that day and part of me really wanted to stay home, read the paper and go to the farmers’ market, but we hopped on the ferry, got some fresh air, and came back feeling all the more eager for the next outing.

In addition to weekend day-trips and lofty camping and hiking plans, one thing I know for sure will help with the excitement and enthusiasm for spring (as if you needed help in that arena) is the beautiful and inspired cookbook, Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison. I get quite a few cookbooks in the mail from publishers and PR folks and many of them I end up finding new homes for, but Madison’s book has landed a spot front and center on our cookbook shelf. It’s not only beautiful (boasting photography from two of my favorite food photographers working today, Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton), but it gives you a host of new ways to prepare your favorite vegetables and a wealth of information on herbs, grains and roots that may even be new to you. Madison’s recipes are approachable and seem very do-able; nothing has 17 steps or takes a day in the kitchen to prepare.

The book really encourages giving pause — taking a moment to rethink the way you use vegetables and to get to know the relationship between them (for example, knowing that the Cabbage family includes arugula, broccoli and brussels sprouts can help a great deal when trying to brainstorm complimentary vegetables in a salad or how best to substitue an ingredient that you can’t track down). There are a handful of vegetable-focused books coming out this spring, and I have a feeling this is the one I’ll be reaching for the most.

The first recipe from this book that caught my eye was this saucy braised fennel. I’ve been roasting fennel lately, and so love the way it draws out its slightly sweet, mild anise flavor — but I’d yet to try braising it. Anyone who has cooked from Debora Madison’s cookbooks knows that her recipes hardly need tinkering with. But because I hate wasting the fennel stalks and greens, I did end up chopping them finely and folding them into the braise (Madison suggests using them as garnish, but I wanted to cook them down a bit in the braise itself). And at the last minute, I tossed in bit more garlic and a few tablespoons of capers for an extra salty little punch. I served this deliciously saucy mess of spring vegetables with a bowl of quinoa and a little soft chèvre and parsley on the side. When you find yourself sitting at home waiting for a truly warm spring day, this will surely help speed things along.

Braised Fennel Wedges with Saffron and Tomato
Deborah Madison suggests you leave the core intact when slicing the fennel as it’s what really holds the slices together. And you want to make sure to get some color/even a little char on the fennel before adding your cooking liquid. While I suggest folding in the fennel greens and chopped stalks here, I did reserve a few of the greens for a delicate garnish at the very end. Serve it however you’d like; fennel is typically really nice with fish or chicken, but for me it invites grains: heartier grains like farro, wheat berries or even barley would be really delicious in lieu of quinoa.

Slightly adapted from: Vegetable Literacy

Serves: 4
2 large fennel bulbs
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
Pinch of saffron threads
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Finely chopped fennel stalks
Finely chopped fennel greens
3 cloves garlic, crushed
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons capers
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
Kosher salt
Cooked quinoa (or other favorite grain), for serving (optional)
Crumbled goat cheese, for serving (optional)
Chopped Italian parsley, for serving (optional)
Trim off the stalks and greens from the fennel bulbs and chop finely. Set aside. If the outer leaves of the bulbs look scarred, take a slice off the base and loosen them and set them aside for another use. Halve each bulb lengthwise and cut the halves into wedges about 1-2 inches thick. Heat the olive oil in a wide saute pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion and fennel seeds, crumble in the saffron and thyme, and then cook until the onions soften and the steam releases the color from the saffron, about 7-10 minutes. Add the fennel wedges and cook them until golden, turning them and the onions occasionally. Once they are well colored, add the garlic, stir in the tomato paste, capers and then add the stock and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Scrape the pan to release the juices, then cover and simmer until the fennel is tender, about 15-20 minutes.
Serve over a bed of cooked quinoa with a little crumbled goat cheese and chopped fennel greens and parsley for garnish.
Note: If there’s excess liquid at the end of cooking, pour it into a small skillet. When ready to serve, add 1 tablespoon butter to the juices, bring to a boil and simmer until rich and syrupy. Pour the thickened sauce over the warm fennel. 
  1. Katie
    Posted March 26, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    I like the phrase “tentative spring.” I’d feel that on the East Coast–warmth of the sun on your face, snow at your feet, crocuses just peeping through. I need to take a peek at this cookbook. Sounds like a good one. (I often turn to Alice Waters’ “Vegetables” for inspiration, so I’m curious to see how this one differs.)

  2. Posted March 26, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    I’m not normally enamored with fennel, but this recipe has me intrigued! It’s probably worth giving it a go. Maybe I’ll make that my spring resolution.

  3. megang
    Posted March 26, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    Yay, Nicole! I loved it — Sam found the larger pieces of fennel to be, well, large. But if you like fennel, you’ll love them that way if you’re on the fence, you can just slice them up a bit before serving. I have an inkling you may like it, too. Happy early spring!

  4. Posted March 26, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    I am so jealous of all you special folks who get an advance copy of this book. Deborah Madison is possibly one of my all-time favorites for recipes, everything…and Vegetable Literacy looks so beautiful! This sounds amazing (but I am a fennel bulb addict, so, possibly biased…)

    Hope you’re well, Megan, and staying sane in the cookbook madness! —S

  5. Posted March 26, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    I like your simple goal. I think we’re much more likely to make changes when we don’t put so many demands on ourselves but instead just one or two requests (not demands!) that are easy to reach. And what a good goal yours is! Additionally, I cannot wait to get my hands on this book! The braised fennel looks fantastic.

  6. Vanessa Burgess
    Posted March 26, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    Hi Megan,
    I hope that this can be a summer dish too and that you will make it
    in Lake George or some other equally delectable vegetable dish.
    Love…Aunt V

  7. Posted March 27, 2013 at 4:03 am

    Oh I love fresh fennel, absolutely gorgeous braised in a beautiful dish like this one. Delicous

  8. Posted March 27, 2013 at 10:49 am

    i have been salivating over my copy, as well, ever since it arrived a week or so ago. so many things bookmarked, from egg salad to soups, and yes, this fennel all but shouted out of the page.

    good for you for getting out there in the cold chilly. hard, especially on those windswept beaches. but always worth it in the end.

    xo,
    molly

  9. megang
    Posted March 28, 2013 at 7:53 am

    Absolutely, Aunt V. We’ll have to have you bring the vegetables so as to avoid Walmart produce!

  10. Posted March 28, 2013 at 9:02 am

    Wowwww that saucy fennel dish looks so amazing! It almost resembles one of my favorite dishes I order at Italian or fusion-y Mexican restaurants–like the saffron broth with shell fish and noodles. This book sounds really neat because sometimes I find myself wondering, “hmmm what spice would go with this vegetable?” :)

  11. Posted March 29, 2013 at 11:15 am

    I can’t wait to pick up a copy of the book, and the braised fennel looks amazing. Kind of crazy that you were just on Whidbey Island given the recent landslide…

  12. Posted March 30, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    such a cute pic of sam! love the goal. so nice to be outside. I live super close to the ocean and every time I go for a walk there, I don’t know why I don’t do it everyday. It fills me up. I’m loving the book too :)

  13. Posted April 5, 2013 at 6:24 am

    Lovely post and equally lovely dish! …Susan

  14. Posted April 5, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    I was just speaking with someone about this book, and they highly recommend it. I will have to seek it out …

    We feel the same as you do, and I wish you lived closer. Decisions have been put into place to take advantage of our area more this year by jumping in the car and doing impromptu camping trips. Last year we talked about it during our one trip, and were disappointed when winter rolled around. Refreshing to be taken by the hand into the great outdoors often ….

  15. Posted April 11, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    I completely agree with everything here. I used to make lists of goals and such but frankly, they sort of interfered with the now. Sometimes (most times) life’s worth living without a list. Love these photos and this recipe seems to be the perfect thing for the brink of Spring. xo

  16. New York
    Posted April 13, 2013 at 3:47 am

    I tired this recipe, added organic chickpeas and it was sooo good. thank you i will be back to your blog!!!

  17. Sara
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 10:00 am

    Looking at these pictures made me miss Ruby Beach, Sam, you, and being able to go to a market like the one by your house. This recipe sounds really good. I think I’ll give it a try with brown rice!

  18. Stacey
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Hi Megan,

    I’m a big fan of Marge and am making this dish as we speak. I think you may have left the capers out of the instructions. I’m guessing they are added when you add the tomato paste.

  19. megang
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    Hi, Stacey! Thanks so much for the note and for alerting me to the caper omission … fixed it now! Hope you enjoyed the recipe; it’s high time we made it again around here. Enjoy your week, Megan

  20. Victoria Miller
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    Yay! I love fennel! But even more I love Whidbey Island. If you ever get the chance, spend the night and walk out onto Baby Island when the tide is low…it’s an experience of a lifetime! :)

  21. megang
    Posted April 27, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    Oh! Thanks so much for the tip, Victoria. I’ll remember that for next time we’re there. Enjoy your weekend, ~m

  22. Jeanne Asmode
    Posted April 29, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    This was amazing! My 3 year old loved it too. I found your blog through 101 Cookbooks and I can already see I will be here a lot!

  23. megang
    Posted April 29, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    Hi, Jeanne-
    I’m so, so glad you enjoyed the recipe and stumbled upon the site. Enjoy your week! ~m

  24. Posted May 10, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    Found this recipe and your site through 101 Cookbooks, and boy am I glad! I made this for dinner tonight with some chickpeas added in, served over quinoa with rotis and mint sauce. Thanks for a delicious recipe.

  25. megang
    Posted May 10, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    Wow, that sounds killer! Love the idea of tossing in some chickpeas and quinoa for a real, complete meal. So happy you enjoyed the recipe and that you’re enjoying the site. All best, ~m

  26. Kris
    Posted June 25, 2013 at 8:01 am

    I made this last night & it was my first time cooking with fennel bulbs! Delicious! It’s funny how much the anise taste/smell of the raw fennel mellows out once it’s braised. Really lovely, will be making this again. I served it just as you suggested, with quinoa & a bit of goat cheese & parsley on top.

  27. megang
    Posted June 25, 2013 at 9:34 am

    Oh awesome, Kris! I’m so glad you enjoyed the recipe. I did, too — reminds me I really need to make it again. Enjoy the rest of your week + thank you for the comment. ~mg

5 Trackbacks

  1. By Spring cookbooks! — A Modern Meal Maker on May 5, 2013 at 6:21 am

    [...] for chillier days, braise fennel with tomatoes and saffron, as shown in this lovely post on  A Sweet Spoonful, a blog by Megan [...]

  2. By Favorites List (4.25.13) - Recipe in Depth on May 8, 2013 at 1:38 am

    [...] – Braised Fennel Wedges with Saffron and Tomato [...]

  3. [...] versions are usually quite simple.  I was quite curious to try this much more involved recipe for braised fennel wedges with caramelized onions, saffron and tomato.  It’s from Deborah Madison’s new Vegetable Literacy cookbook, which has been getting [...]

  4. [...] Tomato-Braised Fennel with Couscous, adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy via A Sweet Spoonful [...]

  5. […] fennel wedges with saffron and […]

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