Science in the Kitchen: Fennel, Red Beans, & Chowdah

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This week was incessant. Stressful, disappointing, overwhelming. It’s been months since I’ve written so little, but time keeps passing and life goes on. At the same time I’m writing so little, my brother is writing more than ever, hysterically documenting his trip to Thailand and parts beyond. The pictures are great and the writing very sarcasticly funny. I recommend it.

So after a shitty, no good, very bad week, the weekend arrives in an attempt to break me out of my funk.

Saturday morning grocery shopping reminds me that weekends are for experimenting!

Tomorrow is game day! I have no idea what that means! All I do know is that most of the thirteen original colonies are so bad at American Football (a sport I abhor, by the way) that many of them had to apparently band together to form a single team: The New England Patriots. And what an intimidating mascot that is. A guy who really likes his country can defeat a Giant, no problem. I guess they operate under the power of positive thinking. Yeah, that’s totally super cool and masculine.

Sorry, bit of a rant there. So for this weekend, my husby is making a new red beans and rice recipe and I’m making clam chowder and sauteed fennel.

Today I’m going to post the fennel and beans.

My It’s So Good That It’s like Salty Candy Fennel:

2 TBSP olive or vegetable oil

2 heads Fennel, sliced in 1/4 – 1/3 inch slices

2 medium to large garlic cloves, sliced thinly

2 small or 1 medium shallot, sliced thinly

1 TBSP ponzu

freshly ground black pepper

Growing up in a stereotypical Italian-American family, meant much of my youth was spent in or around a kitchen. My grandparents had an impressive garden, and as a kid bouncing around with a million cousins amongst the many legs of mother, aunts, and grandparents it was common for a hand from above to drop slices of fennel, tomatoes, figs, or hunks of other veggies in our paths. The flavors of ripe fruits and vegetables were abound, building a deep respect of their versatility in me at an early age, yet I didn’t have cooked fennel until I was a teen.

Often the flavor of fennel is described as a more delicate version of black licorice. I happen to like black licorice, but not because I like fennel. Fennel does have a unique flavor, but when it saute’s, it caramelizes, becoming sweet and a little smokey, much like an onion does. Generally when cooking, the first thing that hits the pan once the oil is hot is garlic, but in this super simple and quick recipe, garlic comes last. And this recipe is so quick that the longest part is the prep in slicing everything.

Heat the oil over medium high heat in a skillet. Once the oil moves around the pan easily toss in the fennel, trying to keep the slices in one layer. Let them sit for 3 -4 minutes and then stir – or toss if you’re skilled – to continue caramelizing. After the fennel has been in the pan for about 5 minutes, add the shallots. After an additional 1-2 minutes, add the sliced garlic. You want the garlic to warm, but not brown. Add the Ponzu and continue cooking for an additional minute, stirring to coat. You want the fennel to be just tender, caramelized on the outside, but with a good bit of bite in the center. There’s nothing worse than mushy vegetables.

This is crazy delicious. It’s sweet and salty, it has bite, it’s just a little spicy from the barely cooked garlic, and it’s got great texture. It’s the dish that changes a dissenter’s mind about fennel. Now this as it is makes an excellent side dish and if you’re on Weight Watchers it’s next to Zero points. Immediately upon diving into this for lunch all I wanted was to have thrown in some shrimp the last 2-3 minutes of cooking and served with brown rice. Perhaps even a dash of Srirachi. That would have been a mega simple, quick, filling, and healthy dinner!…In fact, stay tuned for that recipe later in the week.

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My husband has a bit of a man-crush on John Besh. And who can blame him. It’s impossible not to fall in love with all things N’Orleans and Besh is certainly an integral part of their current food culture. Chip likes to make his lunches for the week on the weekend prior and as I’ve gotten more interested in new recipes so has he. What used to be his standard Yakisoba or hummus and veggies lunch, has evolved to include homemade bean salads that change with the seasons, and now red beans and rice.

But this is serious red beans & rice. Chip choose to double the amount of red beans, added an extra ham hock, a little extra water and bacon grease, but otherwise his loyalty remained intact. Rendering bacon fat is easy, but it does make you house smell strongly of bacon. I only like to smell bacon right when I’m eating it. Then I need all evidence of it being cooked to disappear. This is because of one time when we were house hunting a few years ago. Chip and I walked into the most claustrophobic, messy home and it just reeked of bacon. We took one look at our realtor and read each others mind at once: Get Out! Ever since I just can’t stand the smell of that stuff, but I put the dislike to the side for today.

Rendering bacon fat is easiest if the bacon is cut into 1-1 1/2 inch chucks and cooked over low to medium-low heat. I did not cut up the bacon ’cause I didn’t want to smell like bacon for the rest of the day. No matter how many time I wash my fingers I swear they’ll smell of bacon for hours. You want all the fat to cook off, but you don’t want the grease to cook into brown bits.

John Besh’s  Red Beans & Rice with “Chip Tweaks”

2 onions, diced

1 green bell pepper, seeded & diced

1 stalk celery, diced

3 TBSP rendered bacon fat

2 pounds dried kidney beans

3 smoked ham hocks

3 bay leaves

1/2 cayenne pepper

3 green onions

salt and pepper

3 cups rice

In a heavy stock pot, Chip sweated the celery, peppers, and onion until the latter was translucent over medium high heat. Then he threw in the kidney beans, ham hocks, bay leaves, and dash of cayenne, and gently stirred everything together. After a few seconds of stirring, Chip poured water into the pot until the beans were submerged by 2 inches of liquid. Some items may float to the top, but that’s cool, let them do their thing. Just do you best to measure 2 inches above the beans.

At that point he cranked the heat to high and water for a boil. Once there was a good boil going, Chip turned the heat to low and covered to simmer for 2 hours, stirring every 20 minutes or so. Everything needs to be covered by at least an inch of liquid at all times, so adding water periodically might be necessary, though I’m sure you could use chicken broth or low sodium stock as well. When the beans are crushed to a creamy consistency easily with the back of a spoon, everything was done. Chip removed the ham hocks, easily pulled the meat off the bone, roughly chopped it into small chunks, and then added it back to the pot.

He continued to reduce down the mixture until it was the consistency Chip wanted. You can make this as souped or thick and creamy as you want. And, yes, red beans are healthy for you, but when they’re cooked with ham hocks in veggies that were sauteed in bacon fat, I make no promises of their diet power.

For a final touch he added chopped green onion, salt and pepper, and hot sauce to his liking.

Red Beans & Rice finished and very tasty, rich and hearty without seeming too heavy. An excellent alternative to the usual winter stews and chicken soups.

Clam Chowder tomorrow!

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