If you’ve never tasted fennel, put it on your bucket list. My mom taught me to love it and I’ve passed that favor along to my kids. Of course, they’ll also tell you that fennel can be controversial. I used to put raw fennel in their school lunch bags some days instead of carrots or celery. When I did, other kids grimaced, thinking it was raw onion. Maybe it looked that way to them, but fennel tastes more like Good ‘N Plenty candy than onion. And to prove it, my kids would try to get their classmates to taste it with their eyes closed and name the flavor. Those who were brave enough to try were amazed.
Fennel is great adult food too. Crunchy and tasty, slices are a nice addition to a raw vegetable platter. Braised (cooked in liquid), fennel goes mild and almost sweet. It is marvelous baked in cheese sauce and its beautiful leaves or fronds are wonderful spread over baked or poached fish instead of parsely or dill. It is even delicious in soup, cut up with lots of others vegetables and simmered. And I love its seeds too; they are among my 5 favorite spices.
What is fennel? A perennial vegetable, fennel is a member of the carrot (technically the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae) family, along with anise, dill, parsley, caraway and coriander. It is native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean area, but is now also grown in the U.S. and elsewhere. The most surprising fact I’ve learned about fennel is that it is an ingredient of absinthe, an alcoholic drink popular in 19th Century France.
Earlier this week, I celebrated Julia Child’s 100th birthday with a visit to the grand re-opening of her kitchen, an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Clips of her old TV shows, playing on a screen across from the kitchen, mesmerized me. I watched several of the segments and was delighted by one featuring Julia Child and Alice Waters, founder of the famed California restaurant Chez Panisse, making Alice’s shaved fennel salad. So delighted that I decided to try it, based on what I’d seen in the clip. It was simple – and quick.
This dish takes fennel in a direction that I had never tried before. When thinly cut or shaved, raw fennel retains its crunch and the licorice taste, but those qualities become more delicate. The Julia Child-Alice Waters clip did not provide any proportions and that’s fine – it’s a “dash of this and a sprinkle of that”- type recipe. I served it with grilled chicken sausages, sautéed vegetables and a loaf of good bread.
Shaved Fennel Salad (as demonstrated by Alice Waters and Julia Child, with my own proportions and explanations)
Servings – 3-4 as a side salad Cost – $6-7
- 1 bulb of fennel
- 10 or so clean, fresh white or small Portabella mushroom caps (no stems)
- Small amount of good quality Parmesan cheese in a block, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Salt (preferably kosher or sea salt) and pepper to taste
- Juice of half a freshly squeezed lemon
- Mandoline (a grater that makes thin slices) or a knife and cutting board
- Vegetable peeler
- Small knife
- Serving dish with low sides
- Cut off the top stalks and rough bottom of the fennel bulb. Reserve the feathery fronds at the end of the stalks. Wash and dry the bulb. (If any of the outside is bruised or browned, gently cut it off without hacking through the bulb.) Cut the bulb in half, then cut out the small triangle core at the bottom of each half. Shave or thinly slice the fennel and spread it in a thin layer at the bottom of the serving dish. My mandoline is nifty, but you can thinly slice the fennel with a large knife if you don’t have a mandoline.
- Dribble 2 or 3 thin streams of olive oil over the fennel. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Shave or thinly slice the clean, dry mushroom caps, and add them as a thin second layer.
- Again dribble olive oil and add salt and pepper.
- Using a vegetable peeler, grate parmesan cheese over the fennel and mushrooms.
- Add a touch more oil. Cut a lemon in half through the fat middle (not end-to-end), take out seeds and squeeze half over the salad.
- Optional: For garnish, sprinkle clean, dried feathery fennel fronds (say that 10 times fast!), over the salad.
I left the salad at room temperature for about an hour. I think that timing improved the taste because it gave the flavors a chance to meld. In any event, the cheese should be at room temperature when the salad is served because it has more taste than if served straight from the refrigerator.