Saturday, July 30, 2011

Braised Artichokes and Fennel with Preserved Lemon

I've paired artichokes and fennel in a number of different dishes over the years--soups, salads, relishes, fricassees, stews, tajines, and sandwiches--for the simple reason that they go together well. The two compliment one another in the classic sense that chocolate and vanilla do, but in a much more intimate mesh of flavor and texture.

While in the throes of my recent fling with preserved lemons, I came up with this dish that I think joins European and Arabic cuisines as close to seamlessly as any I've seen.

It all began innocently enough. I had bought a couple of artichokes, intending to prepare them in the common manner--for dipping the leaves and scraping the tiny bit of flesh off with one's teeth--because that's my son's favorite. He loves artichokes, but prefers them in the simplest format (his first solid food as a baby was artichoke mousse). But the kitchen gods have a way of leading me in unexpected directions, and I've learned to allow them their whims. It's senseless to resist them, because I can always go back later and make whatever it was that I had in mind, but once spurned, they tend to withhold their miraculous guidance. 
So here you have it:

I've always cut out the core of the fennel bulb, because it's tougher than the rest, and takes longer to cook. This time I was called to include a large portion of the core, slicing lengthwise to create frilly-looking cross-sections. The Artichokes I prepared in the usual manner for sautéing, which is to snap off the tough leaves, pare away the coarse outer layer of skin, and cut into wedges--using lemon juice to prevent discoloration, of course. I also sliced half a red onion and cut half a rind of preserved lemon into roughly quarter-inch dice.

I began by sautéing the onion in a little EVOO, until just wilted and beginning to caramelize. Then I added the artichokes and fennel, stirring to combine well. In the picture, you can see the fennel slices, held together by the core section.

Once the liquid released had been reabsorbed and the vegetables began to take  on a little color, I added the diced preserved lemon and a splash of brine, about a cup of dry white wine, and a pinch of Kashmiri saffron. Then I covered the pot and let the vegetables cook slowly until tender. I removed the cover, cooked the remaining liquid down to a silky sauce, tasted a mouthful, and then added just a touch more salt and a grinding of black pepper. Just before serving, I tossed in about a tablespoon of chopped parsley.

The kitchen gods were right, as usual. Each mouthful carried a gentle explosion of delicate but assertive aromas, rising from a bed of subtly sweet, sour, salty, and the barest hint of bitter. The fennel cores remained fairly firm, but this didn't detract from the overall yielding texture of the braised vegetables. As always, the unique meld of fennel-artichoke flavors and textures was utterly symphonic, only this time with wafting notes of saffron and preserved lemon perking up the piece, like one might imagine oboe and flute, flitting across a cello's rich, warm tone. Comfort food of the gods, pure and simple.


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