Welcome to Never Fail, a weekly column where we wax poetic about the recipes that never, ever let us down.
I don’t think of myself as a boring guy—but my weeknight dinner routine might suggest otherwise. My ideal Monday (and Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Thursday) night dinner consists solely of one very flavorful thing on top of freshly-steamed white rice. That’s it.
I’ll have two bowls. And then maybe eat a piece of fruit for dessert. And have a glass of wine or beer. And then maybe some chocolate for second dessert. And then read a book. And then maybe watch something on TV. And then brush my teeth. And then go to bed. And that’s my kind of Tuesday night. I’m 26. (I swear I don’t have grandchildren.)
With such a simple dinner formula, I need to make sure that whatever I’m throwing on top of my rice is an absolute showstopper in the flavor department. I’ve gone through phases, but right now, when it comes to putting things on top of white rice, I just can’t get enough of this crunchy gochujang fennel recipe.
I’m a big fennel guy. And I’m big on sauces that bring a range of flavors to the table, with balanced proportions to keep them all in check. Which is exactly what this recipe, developed by Sohui Kim, the chef at Insa and The Good Fork in Brooklyn, delivers in spades.
The flavor comes from the sauce, a mix of ginger, garlic, gochujang, rice vinegar, toasted sesame oil, honey, sesame seeds, and gochugaru. Those two Korean chile ingredients are what really fire it up. The fermented chile flavor of gochujang shines all the more bright next to the dry heat of gochugaru, which is not too spicy and a little smoky. (If you can’t find gochugaru, you could substitute any red chile flakes in a pinch.)
But it’s about how the other flavors balance that spice that makes the sauce so good. The honey brings sweetness. The sesame brings toasty-ness and umami. The vinegar brings tang. They all work together to take that simple bowl of white rice from good to exceptional.
It might sound like I just really love this sauce. And I do. But I also love what gets tossed in it. Slices of fennel that get briefly blanched in boiling water and then shocked in a chilly ice water bath. The result is a just-soft, highly crispy vegetable. The texture is incredibly satisfying.
And at this point, you may have decided that I am, in fact, boring. It’s just rice and fennel and sauce? That’s a dinner that excites me? Yes. It is. I know it’s incredibly simple—but it’s also incredibly tasty.
But if you’re the type who wouldn’t be satisfied by this kind of simplicity, this would also be killer with just about any crispy, seared meat. Or fried rice. Or stir-fried noodles. And you could substitute just about any vegetable for the fennel. But I’d suggest reveling in the simplicity, at least for a moment. And then plotting your Tuesday evening plan from there.