Few vegetables are as transformed by cooking as fennel. Raw, fennel has a faintly licorice-like taste. I love it, but not everyone does. Whether you find the raw version intriguing or not, cooked fennel is much milder – interesting to be sure, but not remotely bizarre.
As the weather (finally) got warm this week, I got a hankering for Alice Waters’ shaved fennel salad. But in a moment of mad scientist kitchen-edition whimsy, I wondered what the dish would be if those same ingredients were cooked and made into a composed (arranged) salad. The answer is that the new version is as delicious as its progenitor, in a completely different way. Where the layered salad is crunchy and light, this one is smooth and the flavors are concentrated. Both are worthy of a place at your table.
Composed Fennel Salad With Mushrooms and Parmesan
Servings – 3-4 as a side salad Cost – $6-7
- 1 bulb of fennel (medium-large)
- 4 ounces (8 or so) portabella or white mushroom caps (no stems)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Salt (preferably kosher or sea salt) and pepper to taste
- Juice of half a freshly squeezed lemon
- 4-8 tablespoons of water
- Cutting board
- Medium bowl
- Small bowl
- Pan with tight cover (preferably a sauté pan, rather than a skillet)
- Large spoon (preferably wooden)
- Vegetable peeler
- Cut the stems and bottom off the fennel bulb. Slice the remaining bulb in half and take out the core with 2 diagonal cuts. Putting the flat side of a half-bulb on the cutting board, cut thin slices that fall apart into half moons. Of course, you could use a mandoline as I did for the shaved fennel salad, or even the slicing part of a box grater, but I found a knife and cutting board worked just fine. As an optional garnish for the salad, you can also cut delicate leafy ends (fronds) off the stems, rinse them, chop them and set them aside.
- Rinse the half-moon slices in cold water once or twice and then let them sit in a bowl of cold water. You can add an ice cubes, but it is not essential.
- Cut the washed mushroom caps into chunks, quartering the small ones and making a few extra cuts in quarters from larger caps, so that the pieces are roughly the same size.
- Heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the pan. Once the oil is very hot, but not smoking, add the mushroom chunks and cook them over a medium-high heat for a few minutes. Let them rest for about the first 45-60 seconds, then occasionally toss them, so that they brown on all sides. Turn off the heat and remove the mushroom chunks from the pan, leaving behind any oil and juice. The mushrooms will shrink during cooking and later, liquid will pool in the bottom of the bowl as they cool.
- Drain the sliced fennel. Add the juice of the half lemon to the pan with 2-3 tablespoons of water, turn the heat back on to medium-high, and add the fennel slices. (If you don’t want to have to fish out pits, cover the lemon half with cheesecloth or a clean cloth handkerchief as you juice it, or use a juicer that catches pits.) Add salt and pepper, and stir the slices to coat them with the liquid in the pan.
- Cook the fennel for 5 minutes, uncover, add more water if the liquid has dissipated, re-cover and continue cooking for 15 more minutes. Check occasionally to make sure there is still liquid in the pan. If it is all gone, add a few more tablespoons of water. There should always be a moist film on the bottom of the pan, but the fennel should not be swimming in liquid.
- Once the fennel is cooked to a softened state, cool it to room temperature.
- To serve, put the fennel in a dish, pour the liquid that has pooled at the bottom of the small bowl of mushroom chunks into the fennel, arrange the mushrooms around the side and add freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top of the fennel. Optional: add reserved chopped fennel fronds either on the serving dish or in individual portions.
This salad would be a lovely dish for a spring or summer buffet, as it could sit out at room temperature for several hours.