Food of the Marathoners
Every year, the growers will bring their frizzy-headed fennel bulbs to the farmers market. And then they’ve got some explaining to do.
The customers wish to buy this attractive vegetable, but have no idea what to do with it. Maybe they’ve brought one home before, only to be stumped, and are now twice shy. So they ask, “What do you do with fennel?”
The answers are well-worn. We are told to grill it, braise it, saute it with garlic and olive oil, and other ways to cook the life out of it, because few have the confidence to suggest we eat it raw.
The licorice-like flavor can be intimidating. You may not think that you want bite after bite. So we drench it in sauce and try to cook it out. But when we look forward to grilling season, it isn’t for the grilled fennel. And any cooking technique will ruin some of its better qualities. Cooking is like a forced aging; what’s the hurry? If you really want to try braising fennel, start with the stumps you cut off the bottom when trimming the bulbs.
I look for ways to make the most of its stronger qualities and putting that aromatic, juicy crispness to work. Salads, for the most part. A plate of mere slices, sprinkled with salt and drizzled with XVOO, make a lovely snack. Fennel may rarely make it as a main course, but as a side it can play an important part in a stellar meal.
Whether in coleslaw or some other raw, salad-like form,l fennel really shines alongside seafood. At the Atlantic Cafe in Edgartown, MA, last week, I had a fennel and arugula salad served alongside octopus. A few days later I served mint fennel coleslaw alongside an eight pound bluefish that my son reeled in. I added shreds of mint, to round out the fennel fragrance with more complexity, and make it taste less like a piece of black licorice. Cabbage-based coleslaw might just be a thing of the past.
The city of Marathon, after which the race is named, is itself named after fennel, which translates to “maratho” in Greek, while Marathon literally means “place with mucho fennel.”
This might just be a coincidence, but nonetheless teases the imagination that it might be connected to longevity. It’s high in nutrients and fiber and low in calories, which is a good thing unless you’re starving. Fennel also aids in digestion by reducing bowel inflammation, and is thought to suppress gas-causing bacteria in the gut.
Were none of this true, it wouldn’t change how I feel about this crunchy zesty plant, or how it performs alongside fish. Now that I know what to do with fennel, I no longer fear it. Instead it’s the fennel that needs to be afraid of me!
To cut a fennel bulb, first slice off the bottom, where the roots were attached, and the stalks, right as they emerge green from the white bulb. The stalks themselves aren’t good for much except in the stock pot, but the thin leaves – often called “fronds” – make a nice garnish, and also work as a fresh herb. I add the chopped fronds to my coleslaw, for the lovely green capillaries in the coleslaw that double-down on that fabulous fennel flavor.
Slice it in half, top-to-bottom, and lay the flat sides down. Many people cut out the core in the middle, but I don’t understand why. It tastes like the rest of the plant, and might be more tender.
Slice the halves thinly, in the same top-to-bottom direction. You can go with those slices, or hold the sliced half bulb in place and cut the slices crosswise into dice.
Sliced or diced, on fish or your favorite dish, fennel is your Greek friend. It doesn’t speak English, but now you know enough to communicate in fennelese.
Fennel coleslaw is so simple that no recipe is even required. You can simply add it to your favorite coleslaw recipe, or substitute it for some or all of the cabbage. My recipe, below, involves no cabbage, but rather a bouquet of fragrant herbs to compliment the fennel aroma. My choice is parsley and mint, but you could also mess around with basil, dill, chives, all in generous quantities.
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and grated into large shreds
1 medium sized carrot, shredded large
½ onion, sliced thinly
2 cloves garlic, shredded small
¼ cup white balsamic vinegar
½ cup mayo
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 cup chopped parsley
2 tablespoons minced mint
¼ cup chopped fennel fronds
Combine all the ingredients. Taste and adjust as necessary. Serve with fish, or anywhere coleslaw is served.
Marathon Green Salad
This salad requires some other green with a strong personality, such as arugula or kale, to balance the fruity levity of the fennel. I only use black kale, aka dino kale, aka a bunch of other names. It’s so much more tender, and I also give it a squeeze as I add it to the salad, which loosens it further. The toasted pine nuts really bring it home, with their toasted nuttiness and resin-y flavor complimenting that of the fennel.
½ red onion, thin sliced
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup white wine vinegar or white balsamic vinegar
1 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, shredded, minced, pressed or mashed
2 tablespoons minced mint
One fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced
4 cups other greens, like arugula, chopped black kale, parsley, spinach or lettuce
¼ cup toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds
Combine all of the ingredients except the fennel, greens and pine nuts. Taste and adjust as necessary. Massage the kale, if using, by squeezing it vigorously in your hands. Add the greens to a large bowl, and pour the contents of the other bowl over the leaves. Stir gently by lifting from the bottom. Garnish with the toasted nuts and serve.