This dish is for anyone who has declared an aversion to black licorice or fennel seeds. Despite what you may think, fennel bulbs—unlike fennel seeds or black licorice—are a much milder flavor than the name indicates. I don’t care if you won’t touch black twizzlers (because everyone knows that red is the best flavor), but have you ever tried fennel bulbs braised with onions in white wine, olive oil, and lemon juice until the fennel bulbs are so tender that they yield under the slight pressure of a fork and marry perfectly with al dente pasta? It’s nothing to be afraid of.
You see, once the fennel has the chance to cook down for a little bit, the flavors mellow out and become sweet, but not overly so. By the time the pasta water has come to a boil and the pasta is cooked, the scent of the fennel braising in the pan will become irresistible.
When the pasta and vegetables are both ready, the dish gets finished with a sort of faux-Gremolata. Gremolata is an Italian condiment used to finish a dish consisting of garlic, lemon zest, parsley, and olive oil. To preserve the delicate flavors of this pasta dish, I omitted the garlic and used a mixture of fresh basil (to mimic the anise flavors in the fennel) and parsley for the herbs. A shower of parmesan cheese completes this pasta dish, making for an elegant meal that can still be made on a weeknight—even if you don’t like black licorice.
Pasta with Fennel Braised in White Wine
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 bulbs fennel, cut lengthwise then cut crosswise into ½ inch slices
1 onion, cut in half and sliced with the grain into ¼ inch slices
Pinch of red pepper flakes
½ cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ cup chopped fresh herbs (parsley, basil, chives, or a combination thereof)
Zest of 1 lemon
1 lb. of a short pasta shape, like shells, penne, rigatoni, or fusilli
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the fennel and onion and sear for 2-3 minutes until the fennel and onions are beginning to turn golden brown. Add ½ teaspoon sea salt, the red pepper flakes, and the white wine, then turn the heat to medium-low, cover, and let cook for 20-25 minutes until the fennel is golden brown, very tender, and the wine has reduced. Add the lemon juice and cook for 1 minute, until slightly reduced.
- Meanwhile, mix together the chopped herbs, lemon zest, ½ teaspoon sea salt, and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, and set aside.
- Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts of water to a rolling boil in a large pot, then add 1 tablespoon of sea salt. Cook the pasta until al dente, then drain and place in a large bowl. Add the fennel, and bowl of herbs, then toss until thoroughly combined. Adjust seasonings to taste, then serve immediately topped, with freshly grated parmesan cheese.