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Making Fennel Work For You

Fennel seems to be a very polarizing vegetable. If you hate anise, you hate fennel, and even if you don’t hate anise, you might hate fennel because wowee is it sweet and anise-y. It overpowers. It cloys. And wouldn’t you know, it’s not an obvious vegetable. You can't just treat it willy-nilly and expect it to be a smash hit. Of course, you don’t have to cook it. I’ve eaten many enjoyable scoops of fresh goat cheese on little spoons of fennel. I imagine that hummus would be a similarly delicious dip for that impetuous plant. But every time I pass a basket of fennel at the market, I think that there must be more to the fennel bulb.

Fennel is beautiful. Gorgeous even. A tight, milk-white bulb surrounded by a crown of downy fronds that look like the feathers of some exquisite bird of paradise. Some grow it as an ornamental, and it is a fabulous ornamental, but actually getting to eat it seems to be the fun part to me, even if I’m not sure what to do with it.

It turns out that fennel can be delicious, but the trick, which is really no trick at all, is that you have to baby it a little. No quick sautés. No hasty baking jobs. Fennel needs time and attention for which you will be duly awarded with mild, tender bites of glory. I do not use that word lightly. You will be amazed at how well-behaved fennel can be.

For this salad, I must defer to Heidi Swanson. She gave me the inspiration, and I took it from there. When fennel is shaved thin as parchment and marinated briefly in lemon juice, its strong flavor is toned down considerably, but the glorious crisp texture is not sacrificed. Another very important feature of this dish is that you aren’t relying solely on fennel for flavor and texture. Delicate and frilly frisée is the backbone of the salad, toasted almonds provide richness and a little crunch, golden raisins offer up their sweetness, and shaved Parmesan gives the salty swagger that this salad calls for. I also shaved a couple celery stalks along with the fennel for an aromatic burst. It was subtle but delicious.

As the fennel in my garden is doing quite well (A note to those of you living in very hot climates—fennel grows very well in hot and sunny conditions. In fact, it grows almost obnoxiously well.), I hope to make this salad several more times. It’s perfectly light and packed full of flavor. Serve it alongside roast chicken with a glass of chilled rosé for a perfect summer meal.

Allow me to make one recommendation. Please take this opportunity to purchase a mandolin slicer. There are beautiful stainless steel models to be had, but there’s really no need to spend the kind of money you will end up spending for something so glitzy and not all that special. The Japanese make a splendid slicer called a Benriner. It’s plastic, but it’s good plastic if you know what I mean. Affordable, durable, and effective. It can do the work of a good knife in half the time or less, and you end up with perfectly cut vegetables. Watch your hands—the blade’s a doozy, but with good common sense you’ll have a pile of paper-thin vegetables in minutes.

Shaved Fennel Salad With Frisée, Almonds, and Raisins
Serves 2 to 4

Using a mandolin or a sharp knife, shave into paper-thin slices:
            1 large head fennel
            2 celery stalks
Combine in a medium bowl with:
            Juice of three lemons
            ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Allow the fennel to sit for 30 minutes or so. Then, strain the fennel reserving the dressing and setting the fennel aside. Toss in the dressing:
            2 heads frisée, trimmed and washed
Pile the frisée on a serving plate. Top with the fennel mixture and:
            2 tablespoons golden raisins
            1/4 cup chopped toasted almonds
            Parmesan shavings

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