Beet & Fennel Salad—Undeservedly So

June 11, 2009

There’s fennel for you, and columbines; there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays.
~William Shakespeare, Hamlet (scene V)

Why is fennel such a neglected child? A culinary tragedy of sorts.

It seems incongruous that this versatile perennial herb always warms the bench in cooks’ imaginations…especially given fennel’s illustrious past. In Greek mythology, the wily titan Prometheus smuggled fire to humans inside the hollow wand of a fennel stalk. The decisive battle of Marathon between the Greeks and the Persians (490 BC) was allegedly waged on a plain covered in wild fennel. Roman author, naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder lauded its medicinal properties, and had numerous herbal remedies linked to fennel. The almost omnipotent medieval king, Charlemagne, had fennel cultivated in his garden to serve the household, perhaps to be shared by each of his nine wives. He later regally mandated that fennel be nurtured in every imperial garden. During this era, fennel was used to protect against witchcraft and evil spirits. Later, in the new world, Puritans chewed fennel seeds during church services, calling them “meeting seed.” (Only Puritans would fail to grasp that double entendre, but perhaps Charlemagne was on to something.)

The fennel found in your local market is Florence fennel, or finocchio, which are topped by fragrant, delicate emerald fronds attached to stout stalks that resemble celery. The edible white “bulb” is actually not that at all, but rather concentrated stacked leaves that unpack like the base of a celery stalk.

You are not alone if you have never cooked with fennel, but I implore you to re-evaluate. Fennel has a subtle flavor that is enticing enough solo, but it also blends well and enhances the flavors of nearby foods. It is eaten raw (often shaven), sautéed, steamed, braised, roasted and grilled with a whole host of food mates—a versatile one.

BEET & FENNEL SALAD WITH CITRUS VINAIGRETTE

6 medium beets
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 T red wine vinegar
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1 shallot, peeled and finely diced
2 T white wine vinegar
1/2 T organic honey
1 T lemon juice
1 T orange juice
1 T grapefruit juice
Sea salt
1/4 t lemon zest
1/4 t orange zest
1/4 t grapefruit zest

1/2 C hazelnuts, roasted and chopped

1 fennel bulb, quartered and cored
1 C frisée, torn in pieces
1 C watercress

Preheat oven to 400 F

Trim ends off beets and rinse. Arrange them in a baking dish, lightly splash them with water, and cover tightly with foil. Roast until cooked through, about 45 minutes. Allow beets to cool uncovered, then peel using a paper towel. Cut into wedges, put them in a bowl and season generously with salt and pepper. Add the red wine vinegar and olive oil, then toss.

In the meantime, wash and dry greens and carefully shave the fennel quarters on a mandoline or slicer.

In a bowl, whisk together the shallot, white wine vingar, honey, citrus juices, and a pinch of salt. Allow to rest and macerate while grating the citrus for zest and preparing the hazelnuts. Slowly drizzle olive oil into the bowl while whisking constantly and then stir in the zests and hazelnuts to complete the vinaigrette. If necessary, add salt to taste.

In a large wooden bowl, gently toss beets, fennel, and frisée and watercress in vinaigrette to lightly, but thoroughly, coat. (The French believe it takes 33 turns for a salad to be properly dressed.) Drenching a salad with vinaigrette is a cardinal sin which carries a sentence of temporary banishment from the kitchen.

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One Response to “Beet & Fennel Salad—Undeservedly So”

  1. lailablogs Says:

    Sounds absolutely delicious … Laila .. http://lailablogs.com/


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