Fennel and I have come a long way. Growing up, fennel was served only one way: the raw stalks were set out at the end of a big meal, along with fruit and nuts. I found the celery-like stalks tough and the licorice flavor too strong (perhaps, by that time, I was simply too full to appreciate it). At any rate, I passed on fennel. For about twenty years. Then, I happened to see TV chef Dave Lieberman make a fennel and green apple salad that looked outrageous. I decided to give fennel another try and…turned out I liked it, after all. For me, the key to enjoying fennel raw is changing the act from a solo to a duet (as Lieberman did). I slice the fennel bulb thinly and pair it with fruit.
The fruit has the effect of mellowing the fennel’s sharp anise flavor, giving it a juicy sweetness and highlighting its crisp texture. I’ve paired fennel with several fruits – apple, pear, orange, kiwi – and my favorite is this Fennel and Orange Salad. The flavors are vivid and fresh, and the oranges give off enough liquid that the salad needs no more dressing than a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of salt and pepper to make it sing. I feel quite certain that, if the Mediterranean sun were to drop out of the sky and land on a plate, it would taste just like this salad. Yes, fennel and I have come a long way.
2 bulbs fennel
2 naval oranges
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
½ lemon, juiced
Cut the stalks off of the fennel and remove the tough outer layer of the bulb, reserving the fennel fronds. Cut the bulb in half and then slice each half very thinly (you may use a mandolin for this, if you wish). Put the fennel slices into the salad bowl and set aside. Peel a naval orange by slicing off the ends. Sit the orange on one of the flat ends and use your knife to cut off strips of the peel and white pith. Keep turning the orange until it is entirely peeled. Cut the orange in half and then slice each half thinly. Add these orange slices to the fennel, then add the olive oil and lemon juice. Toss to combine and sprinkle salt and pepper to taste. Before serving, cut some of the fennel fronds and scatter them on top of the salad.