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Off the Shelf: Creamy Polenta with Caramelized Fennel

Holy cow, but there are a lot of competing flavors going on in this recipe. There's fennel, an assertively-flavored vegetable all by itself. Then it's cooked in a sweet-tangy brown sugar and vinegar mixture. And then there's blue cheese. Put it all together, and what you end up with is a bit of a mess, unfortunately.

The creamy polenta ended up being my favorite part of this recipe, probably because it tasted like...polenta. It wasn't dressed up in a weirdly sweet sauce fighting with the aggressive bite of blue cheese. I just don't think this flavor combination works. Most braised fennel recipes are fairly simple, usually involving some chicken or vegetable stock, perhaps some garlic, occasionally white wine. This recipe from Off the Shelf contains chicken stock, brown sugar, and white wine vinegar. It's way too sweet and tangy, and it ends up fighting with the fennel instead of complementing it. Throwing blue cheese into the mix just adds another strong flavor to an already confusing dish.

I've reworked the recipe to try to tone down the bizarre flavor combinations. The simple braising liquid in my revision is much less fussy. I also recommend serving the dish with a milder cheese, such as fresh mozzarella, which adds a nice creaminess without being overpowering. The fennel needs to cook for quite a bit longer than Donna Hay's recipe states; 15 to 20 minutes, as opposed to the 8 minutes given in the original recipe.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

Creamy Polenta with Caramelized Fennel, revised version

4 Tbsp butter
2 medium-sized fennel bulbs, trimmed and cut into quarters
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 garlic cloves, whole
4 sprigs fresh thyme

4 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese

2 cups water
2 cups milk
1 cup quick-cooking polenta
3 Tbsp butter
Salt and pepper

Place the 4 Tbsp butter in a deep sauté pan over medium heat. Add the fennel and cook for about 4 minutes per side, or until well browned. Add the chicken stock, garlic cloves, and thyme. Cover and cook until the fennel is very tender when pierced with a knife, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove fennel to a plate and increase heat to high. Reduce the liquid in the pan to about 3/4 cup. Remove the garlic and thyme sprigs and discard. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, make the polenta: in a medium saucepan over high heat, combine the water and milk. When boiling, gradually whisk in the polenta. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring, until thick, about 5 minutes. Stir in the butter and salt and pepper to taste.

To serve, place a large dollop of polenta on each serving plate. Top with 1 oz. of cheese, then the fennel. Spoon the fennel pan juices over the top.


Creamy Polenta with Caramelised Fennel, from Off the Shelf

5 Tbsp butter
2 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed and quartered
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
8 sprigs thyme
5 1/2 oz. blue cheese, sliced

2 cups water
2 cups milk
1 cup quick-cooking polenta
5 Tbsp butter
Salt and pepper

Place the butter in a deep sauté pan over medium heat. Add the fennel and cook for 4 minutes per side, or until well browned. Add the stock, sugar, vinegar, and thyme to the pan and cover and cook for 8 minutes or until the fennel is soft and golden. Remove the fennel; bring the pan juices to a boil and reduce by half. While the sauce is simmering, make the polenta.

Bring the water and milk to a boil in a large saucepan. Slowly whisk in the polenta. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until thick, about 5 minutes. Stir in the butter and season to taste with salt and pepper.

To serve, place a large dollop of polenta in each serving dish. Top with a slice of blue cheese, then the fennel and the pan juices.

 

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©2005 Colleen Flippo. All rights reserved. Contact the author.