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A change of heart

May 13, 2010

I have mixed feelings about fennel.

This has not always been the case; I used to just plain hate the stuff. Whenever my mother bought Italian sausages to cook in a big pot of homemade tomato sauce, I would take my sausage, scrape off the sauce, and carefully dissect it to remove any fennel seeds lurking in the surrounding meat. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve grimaced in disappointment upon biting into pizzelle, those crisp, anise-flavored cookies that look like flat golden snowflakes. And I would always carefully set aside the black licorice jellybeans in hopes that someone else would eat them. (A true friend is someone who likes the Jelly Bellies you don’t, and vice versa.)

I think the first thing that began to change my mind was my friend Jesse, whose culinary opinion I trust mainly because he introduced me to the wonder of popcorn cooked on the stove in olive oil.  Jesse told me I should really try a fennel bulb — I think he recommended slicing and sauteing it. I did not take his advice, but it stuck in my head.

Somewhere along the line I started to like those little snowball-shaped Italian cookies. Yes, they had that faint licorice taste, but they were so meltingly soft, capped with sugary frosting and maybe some rainbow sprinkles, that I couldn’t resist. And a few months ago I bravely ordered the artichoke-fennel soup at Flour, hoping my love of artichokes would smooth over any weirdness from the fennel. (It did.)

And then I started reading Orangette. The author of this blog is an avowed defender of unloved vegetables everywhere, and since I share many of her pet causes — well, Brussels sprouts, anyway — that was one last reason to give fennel another chance. And so this week when I went to Whole Foods to pick up some lip balm and one piece of unusual produce, the lucky winner was a smallish fennel bulb.

I could have sauteed or braised the thing, but being in tech week made me not so interested in concocting anything slow or remotely complicated. In short, I wanted salad. And so I rounded up all the raw veggies in my refrigerator, sliced some fennel on top, and drizzled it all with lemon vinaigrette.

It wasn’t bad. Sniffing the fennel while working with it, I was put off by the aroma and wimped out, only using half the bulb, lest its flavor spoil the rest of the salad. But when I actually tasted a slice, it was sweet, mild, crunchy, and only very faintly licorice-y. I wouldn’t say I’m a total fennel convert; I still wouldn’t knowingly touch the seeds. But I think it’s safe to say I’ll be giving the bulb a whole lot more second chances.

The following is not a recipe, so much as a list of what was in my house on Monday and what I did with it. It’s inspired by a couple of salads from Orangette, but it doesn’t share many ingredients — really just the fennel and the vinaigrette.

Second-Chance Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette

2 handfuls salad greens, rinsed and torn (I used red leaf lettuce; next time I’ll try arugula)

4 large radishes, thinly sliced

1/2 bulb fennel, thinly sliced

1 celery stalk, sliced on the diagonal

1 Tbsp. fresh Italian parsley, coarsely chopped

Pecorino Romano cheese, shaved

For vinaigrette:

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1 Tbsp. olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk vinaigrette ingredients in small bowl. Combine all other ingredients except cheese in large bowl, add dressing, and toss to coat. Divide salad between two plates and top with cheese.

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