Monday, April 9, 2012

The Inspiration: Fennel

As spring slowly threatens the grip of winter in the North, I begin to crave fresh produce after a long season of beets, carrots, cabbage, and potatoes. New growth is only just beginning here, so I must look elsewhere to satisfy my desire for a flavour to inspire my palate as I await the first tastes of spring. My preseason inspiration is a bulb that is more associated with autumn, where its sharp anise flavour is tempered by the heat of the oven, creating sweet roasted silkiness. But fennel, in its raw form, is the perfect foil for a tired palate. Texturally, it is crisp even when sliced thin (which, FYI, is the key to enjoying raw fennel), and the flavour is strong but sweet and lively.

Delicious Fennel!

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)has a long literary history, appearing in early myths about Prometheus, and apparently the Bacchanalian wands of Dionysus were from the giant fennel - make of that what you will, giant fennel wands and all. Fennel is probably most common in Mediterranean cooking, although the flavour also shows up in cuisines in India, the Middle East, and China, primarily in seed form. The seed is excellent for digestion and is used in India to cleanse the palate after a meal.

The inspiration for this fennel apple salad was a need for something crisp and fresh. I combined the anise-y sweetness of fennel with tart apples (Granny Smith, in this iteration), a nutty crunch of almonds (walnuts work brilliantly also), the sweetness of bright red bell pepper, and the sharpness of apple cider-mustard dressing. Toss with some farmer's market mixed greens (arugula is another good choice) and you have a light, bright, delicious salad.

Farmer's market lettuce, organic apple, almonds.

First, select a bulb of fennel that is white, with no brown spots, and crisp-looking. Be wary of any part that looks dried out - this likely indicates it is old and won't be as flavourful. If it does have fronds on top, you can use the herby parts in the salad. To prepare the fennel, cut off the green tops and split the bulb into quarters. If if it is a large bulb (fits into two hands, not one), only  use half for this salad. Take out the core at the base of the bulb and slice as thinly as you can, using a sharp knife. If you have a mandolin (the kitchen tool, not the musical instrument) and are not terrified of slicing off the tips of your fingers with it (like I am), it is probably the ideal tool for this job. 

Cut the apple in half and one half into quarters. Eat or store the other half as you like. Take out the core of the apple and slice the apple width-wise into thin pieces.

Take half a red pepper, remove the seeds, and cut into two pieces lengthwise. Slice thinly width-wise so the pepper mimics the apple. When you are done, the fennel, apple, and red pepper should look similar in shape and thinness. 

For the dressing, add equal parts olive oil and apple cider vinegar into a glass jar with a tight lid or into a Magic Bullet (my absolute favourite kitchen appliance - and no, they aren't paying me to say that!!). To the bullet, add honey, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste. You can fiddle with the amounts but I have general guidelines below. A good addition to the dressing would be dill (dried or fresh) and parsley. Shake or blend and use a piece of the lettuce to taste. I like my dressing heavy on the tang of vinegar, but not everyone shares my taste.

The magic of the Bullet

Add the lettuce, fennel, apple, and nuts to a large bowl, drizzle the dressing over the mix, and toss thoroughly. Plate and serve with crusty bread and your favourite fish dish. And voila, a happy palate!

The final result - I got fancy with the apple. Thanks to  my fiance Casey for the photos :)

1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1/2 granny smith apple, preferably organic
1/2 red pepper
3 tbsp almonds or walnuts
4-5 cups organic greens

2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp unrefined apple cider vinegar
1 tsp mustard (I used grainy - you can use any but neon kind you put on hotdogs)
1 tsp honey
salt and pepper to taste
optional: dill or parsley (fresh or dried)

Quarter fennel and apple, remove cores, and slice as thinly as possible, width-wise. Cut the half of the pepper into two pieces lengthwise and also slice width-wise.  Combine vegetables with lettuce and nuts in a large bowl. Place all dressing ingredients in a glass jar with a tight lid or a Magic Bullet/blender and combine. Drizzle dressing over other ingredients and toss thoroughly to combine.


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