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Handling Fennel: The Prima Donna of Summer Produce

     If fennel were a person at a party, it would be the sort of person you only invite to every third party or so.

Big personality, charismatic, and dynamic, but overpowering. Lovely overall, but with a bit of a tendency to steamroll conversation. Fennel, in short, is something of a diva. In the garden and on the bountiful tables of the farmer's market, fennel is one of the most beautiful vegetables. A large, ribbed bulb topped with a head of silky fronds, fennel commands attention.

Fennel also has a wonderful texture, crisp and juicy, with the allure of celery's crunch, but without the same stringiness. Fennel's downfall, though, is its one-note flavor--sweet and decidedly anise-y. It doesn't go well with just anything, and too much of it is the kiss of death for a dish.

I happen to love fennel, and I've come to see its shortcomings as a challenge. Using fennel gives me the opportunity to introduce it to other strong flavors, as it's almost impossible to overpower. There are quite a few recipes for cooked fennel dishes out there--most often braised or roasted--but in my opinion it is in salads that fennel really shines.

Fennel's texture is something to be highlighted. It's crunchy and crisp and refreshing, and cooking softens it considerably. However, large chunks of fennel are undesirable in a dish (unless you absolutely adore it). The answer to this problem is to leave the fennel raw and shave it super thin on a mandoline slicer. The fine shreds of fennel make it almost slaw-like, and any dressing you apply will be well dispersed.

Use a dressing with a strong flavor--something really garlicky or lemony. Perhaps even a dressing that uses goat cheese or feta to make it creamy. For this salad, I used an utterly simple lemon dressing with just enough honey and oil to round out the edges.

Finally, pair fennel with other flavors and textures. Here, I've used Asian pears and toasted walnuts, but you could easily use tart apples and almonds. Last year, I made a fennel salad with arugula, celery, parmesan, and almonds, and it was a lovely iteration of fennel salad.

Essentially, though, don't pass up fennel at the market just because it's assertive. Use that characteristic to your advantage and add one more summer salad to your repertoire.

Fennel Salad With Asian Pears and Walnuts
Serves 2 to 4

I also highly recommend adding very thinly shaved lemon bits (peel and all!) to this salad. The bitter-sour contrast to the sweet fennel is welcome here.
Very thinly slice on a mandoline slicer or with a very sharp knife:
     1 large bulb fennel, fronds trimmed*
     1 medium Asian pear, cored and quartered

In a Mason jar, combine:
     Juice of 1 lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
     1 to 2 tablespoons honey
     2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
     Pinch each salt and pepper

Shake vigorously to combine.
Toast until golden and fragrant (you can do this in a 350˚F oven for about 10 minutes or in a toaster oven for about 5 minutes):
     1/4 cup walnut halves and pieces
In a medium bowl, toss the shaved fennel and Asian pear with half the vinaigrette. You may wish to add more vinaigrette to taste.
Serve scattered with toasted walnuts and cracked black pepper.

*Note: Save the fronds for other dishes rather than throwing them on the compost heap. JOY uses chopped fennel fronds in its Matzo Ball Soup recipe. You can also use them in salads (chop them fine so they'll go down easy), soups, stocks (in moderation), or for stuffing into the cavity of a roast chicken.

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