Our local farmers’ market lasts only two more Saturdays and I’m already starting to feel unhealthy. Despite the ample supply of late-fall vegetables (carrots, potatoes, turnips and brussel sprouts), I experienced what can only be described as disappointment — even despair — during a recent Thursday night voyage to a local supermarket in search of something fresh.
“What I wouldn’t do for an heirloom tomato salad right now,” I caught myself thinking.
But with a little imagination, the wintertime chef can set daydreams aside. Whipping up a dish heavy in fresh veggies is an easy task with just a handful of simple ingredients on the counter.
Enter my muse: fennel.
For those of you unfamiliar with this overlooked vegetable, fennel is not only a seed (most commonly found in sausages), but also a pale green bulb with celery-like stems and bright green, feathery foliage. A member of the parsley family, fennel comes in several varieties. But it’s the Italian variety — or Florence fennel — that’s most commonly used in vegetable cookery. The plant’s foliage doubles as an herb (much like dill), serving as the perfect complement to fish and shellfish. And once the plant flowers, fennel pollen is harvested for culinary uses, functioning as a potent (and quite expensive) addition to many Italian delicacies.
Beyond the kitchen, fennel can be found in the original recipe for absinthe, and some people tout the plant for its medicinal qualities.
Fennel has a reputation for a slight licorice flavor; while this is true, I find it sweet, mild and somewhat undefinable, especially when cooked. In fact, I’ve sprung a fennel dish or two on unsuspecting guests who have finished the meal quite appreciative.
Raw, fennel is crisp, juicy and refreshing — a great addition to salads, slaws and crudités. So if you’re looking for a winter salad with a fresh summer punch, look no further.
Avocado, Radish and Fennel Salad
The quantities of this salad are relative, depending on how many servings you intend to make. What you’re looking for is two parts fennel to one part radish. Head to the grocery store and find some fennel that has bright green leaves and stalks. Cut off the tops and excess stalks.
Trim the bottom of the fennel bulb and remove any outer leaves that look dry or tough. Cut the fennel bulb in half, slicing it as thinly as you can, starting from the root to the top. Make sure to wash your radishes well, as they tend to pick up dirt. In a large bowl, mix together the radishes, the fennel, a couple large handfuls of salad greens and some thinly sliced avocado. Baby arugula, available throughout the winter, is a great addition to this salad as well. When all the ingredients are in the mix, toss your salad with some freshly squeezed lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil.
The avocado, radish and fennel salad works great on the side or can be turned into a light accompaniment for broiled fish or chicken.
By the way, you can save those fennel stalks for soup stocks or to use as a base for baking chicken or fish. These highly aromatic parts of the plant should not be wasted.
Be sure to hold onto some of the feathery fronds of the fennel as well. If you wrap them in a paper towel and put them in a sealable baggie, they’ll last for a while in the refrigerator. Try adding them to eggs or tuna salad, or anywhere you use dill. If you’re making deviled eggs for the holidays, the fennel fronds can add a new twist to an old trick.