Storied vegetable adds fresh twists to summer salads
Now that the beastly summer heat is waging war once again on the hapless North State, Henri has resumed his battle station: the couch, with a cool, damp towel across ma fore-tête, Tanqueray and tonic at main. Thankfully, my dear sister, the saintly Colette, has been très understanding and accommodating—making runs to the movie store, shopping for groceries and ensuring that my munitions are continually refreshed.
She’s also been doing most of the cooking, experimenting with a wide array of cold soups and innovative salads, among our favorites being several made with fennel bulbs, an ingredient with which neither of us had much experience until recently.
Fennel, a member of the parsley family, probably originated in the Mediterranean. In fact, according to culinarycafe.com, the word is from the ancient Greek term for “marathon,” the famous battle having taken place in a “field of fennel.” And according to Bert Greene, in his highly recommended Greene on Greens, fennel has “been around for so long [that it] is the subject of the best and most curious folklore … credited with restoring sight to the blind, turning the barren fertile, and adding grit to fainthearted soldiers in battle.”
There are actually two fennels: the anise-flavored herb, which grows prolific and weedlike and from which we get fennel seeds; and the garden vegetable, Florence fennel, or finocchio, harvested as a bulb. The seeds, common in the Middle East and India, are delicious when added to meatballs or sprinkled over fish. Shaved, the bulbs are excellent in salads or sautéed or grilled with other vegetables, providing a distinctly sweet, aromatic flavor.
Look for bulbs that are tightly packed and firm, not spongy or pulpy, and don’t remove the stalks until just before slicing the bulbs—to retain the full flavor.
Here are a couple of very simple recipes for delicious salads that feature bulb fennel, readily available and inexpensive this time of year. Both pair well with a crisp Sauvignon blanc.
Shaved Fennel Salad with Seared Tuna and Parmesan
One of our very favorite quick and easy meals, this salad, from the restaurant Azul in Miami, actually makes an excellent main course—good with a little couscous on the side. It’s also a great way to stretch an expensive cut of fish; the tuna often goes for $15-$18/lb., but you need only about a quarter-pound. Note: Do not substitute previously frozen tuna. For recommendations on most sustainable seafood choices, go to montereybayaquarium.org.
1 fennel bulb
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme (chopped)
1 tablespoon Italian parsley (chopped)
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese (chopped)— you can also use Reggiano or Romano
2 tablespoons pink peppercorns
4 oz. fresh quality tuna
1/4 cup Kosher salt
Shave the fennel as thinly as possible, ideally with a mandoline or meat slicer, and place in medium bowl. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, the lemon juice, thyme, parsley and cheese. Set aside.
Sprinkle salt and half the peppercorns on the tuna. Place a sauté pan (or cast-iron skillet) on high, and add a tablespoon of olive oil and remaining peppercorns. When oil is hot, add tuna and cook on each side for about 30 seconds. Important: Do not overcook. The top and bottom should be browned only, the inside still bright pink (raw).
Remove tuna from pan and slice into quarter-inch pieces. Place fennel mixture on flat plate or serving dish, and lay the tuna slices on top. Serve immediately.
Raw Beet and Fennel Salad
This salad from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything is perfect for a summer meal, the purple-red beets also making for a colorful presentation.
1/2 lb. small beets
2 large shallots
1/2 lb. fennel
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon fresh tarragon, minced
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
Peel the beets and shallots, then shred in food processor. Place in medium bowl. Shave the fennel as thinly as possible, and mix in with beets and shallots. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add oil and lemon juice, and toss. Toss in the herbs.