I’m in love with a cookbook.
As I dished the other day, my beautiful copy of Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy arrived last week. Normally, I read cookbooks like I read magazines. I flip through the pages, look at the pictures, bookmark a couple things that catch my eye, and then I move on. This one, though? This one I’m reading. It’s outstanding. Extraordinary.
The book is full of dozens and dozens of recipes, some refined and elegant, many others gloriously simple and down-to-earth. This food is real food. And what’s even better is that in between all of the instructions and the ingredient lists are little lessons, little snippets, little anecdotes. It is easy to tell that Vegetable Literacy was a project that Deborah Madison loved putting together. Each paragraph holds a memory, a story. A small morsel of her life.
From the first page of her introduction: “One Sunday Dan and I went to a nursery that was said to be especially interesting. Called Western Hills, it was tucked back in the lush folds of Sonoma County. As we entered we were handed glasses of champagne for it turned out that Western Hills was celebrating a birthday. But the way a dog never forgets the storefront that harbors a stash of canine treats, for many years I harbored the vague expectations that I would always be handed a glass of champagne when I went to a nursery. Plants had, it seemed become an occasion for celebration.”
Ordinarily, when I cook from a recipe, I don’t cook from a recipe at all. I might jot down a few ingredients, agreeing that they go nicely together, but I’ll add a few of my own favorite flavors and then put them together any which way I’d like.
With this book, though — this beautiful, enormously big-hearted book — I just can’t do that. Today I followed Deborah Madison’s recipe for braised fennel wedges with saffron and tomato, and I followed it to a T. I didn’t even add cheese — a somewhat considerable achievement for me. Instead of thinking I knew better, I just simply let it be. In so doing, I felt like a disciple performing some holy rite — offering up my labor and love in service to an idol god. It was a homily. A genuflection.
And, holy fennel, it was delicious. If there is one thing I overlooked in this recipe, it was the serving suggestion. Deborah recommends serving this with seafood or rice to a group of four, but, at dinner time, I put it all in a big bowl without accompaniment and I devoured it.
Braised fennel wedges with saffron and tomato
From Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy.
Fennel is a natural with seafood, so you might pair this dish with halibut or seared scallops. But it’s also good with rice, and black rice makes for an especially dramatic — and delicious — pairing. Be sure to leave the core in the fennel bulb. It’s what holds the wedges together.
- 2 large fennel bulbs
- 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
- Good pinch of saffron threads
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 1/2 cups chicken stock or water
- Sea salt
- 1 tablespoon butter
- Freshly ground pepper
- Minced fennel greens or fresh flat-leaf parsley
Trim off the stalks and greens from the fennel bulbs. (Mince the greens for a garnish. If there are none, you can use parsley.) If the outer thick leaves of the bulbs look tough and scarred, as they often do, take a slice off the base to loosen them and set them aside for another use. Halve each bulb lengthwise and cut the halves into wedges about 1 1/2 inches at the widest part.
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 steam releases the color from the saffron, after several 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, and then add the stock and 1 teaspoon salt. Scrape the pan to release the juices, then cover and simmer until the fennel is tender, another 15 minutes.
If there’s an excess of liquid pour it into a small skillet. When ready to serve, add the butter to the juices, bring to a boil, and then simmer until rich and syrupy. Reheat the fennel, taste for salt and pepper, and pour the sauce over the fennel. Garnish with the fennel greens and serve.