Thursday, March 12, 2009

In Hopes of Spring Day 3: Orange & Fennel Salad

just a lovely little finocchio;
picture credit

Today we pay homage to something of a Springtime jack of all trades: fennel, or in Italian, finocchio.

Like many other of my favorite Italian ingredients, it was my husband and his family who introduced me to fennel. I'd heard of it, probably seen it, most likely had the seeds in some kind of baked good or sausage, but I'd certainly never known any of it. And I had definitely never eaten it raw and in a salad. In fact, the first time I did, at my then-not-yet-in-laws' house, I didn't like it. I never did and still generally do not enjoy most forms of licorice (much to the chagrin of my Danish friends, who seem to be obsessed with it), and fennel packs a pretty strong licorice-y flavor. You can smell it, you can taste it, and the fresh, crunchy vegetable quality it also has does nothing to lessen it. It took some time, but eventually I got used to it, and now, I love it.

These days, I use fennel in all kinds of ways in the kitchen: in salads (like today's recipe), roasted with olive oil and lemon juice, in chicken soup, steamed with fish, sauteed in pasta dishes, and even thrown into an impromptu version of veal or chicken piccata. But it wasn't until the other day that I had ever made it in a salad with nothing but oranges. Matt and I were both pleasantly surprised by how well the two ingredients go together and soon thereafter realized it was actually a common combination in Italian cooking. Some people add nuts, some add freshly chopped mint (ah! so good!) or other herbs, there are a few who like their salad with black olives, some make it
with balsamic vinegar or throw in some lamb's lettuce or arugula, but however they do it, it's kept very simple and very fresh.

That's kind of the key to most Italian cooking, in my humble opinion, and what makes it particularly attractive for Springtime feasting (or nibbling, if that's your bag).

* * *

Much Ado About Fennel
a few interesting points on my love thereof

3. Olfactorily Pleasing, Somehow
A couple of years ago, Matt and I made a pilgrimage back to southern Italy with the sheriff to visit her hometown and family again for the first time in nearly 50 years. The tiny village in the mountains near Naples was modern enough, but still happily nestled in the somewhat untouched Italy of the world wars in a couple of ways. The most striking and interesting to me was the continued tradition of growing one's own produce and herbs that most of the old people in the town still adhere to.

The soil there being particularly fertile does aid this endeavor, and made walking in the hills particularly entertaining to me. At every corner there was a rosemary or oregano bush growing, unplanted and untended to. Also in abundance was fennel and its diminutive version, baby fennel. I was running around like a madwoman picking this, smelling that, shoving random shoots of flowers
and herbs into my purse (only to find them days, weeks, months later). This wonderful and haphazard experience is how I learned to recognize fennel in its un-supermarketed state, growing in the wild, by its flowers, leaves, stems and bulbs.

But however distinctive its look, it can easily be confused with things like dill or carraway - so to me (and Matt by the end of it) the most pleasant part of deciphering whether I'd really found fennel was taking a bunch of whispy leaves and burying my face in them. Olfactorilly (and aesthetically) pleasing, somehow, wouldn't you say?

ah, fennel flowers!
picture credit here.

2. Edible, on the WHOLE
I call fennel the jack of all trades because it is one of the few veggies that is entirely edible. The seeds, the stalks, the leaves, the bulb: it's all good and it's all useful.

Whether you're making biscotti or Italian sausages with the seeds, braising the bulbs, stuffing the cavity of a chicken with the leaves and stalks, or making tea from the flowers, fennel has a million uses - culinary and medicinal - which make it incredibly versatile and yummy to boot.

A Classic example of a Classical Contribution
Would my post on fennel be complete without a little nerdy classical stuff?

- Fennel's roots (pun intended) can be traced back to - you guessed it - the Mediterranean, where it was used widely by the Romans and Greeks in ancient times, both for cooking and medicinal purposes. Much like the artichoke, it still is.

- In ancient Greek fennel was called marathon (
μάραθον) and in Latin its name was feniculum, the diminutive form of fenum, meaning "hay."

- Fennel belongs to the Apiaceae family, along with another infamous Classical (but poisonous) herb that looks a lot like fennel: Hemlock.

Just in case that does nothing for you: according to Plato, Hemlock would be what Socrates was forced to drink to kill himself in Ancient Athens back in the day when he was accused and convicted of impiety. Not so delicious a death.

* * *

Insalata di Finocchi ed Arancie
(Fennel & Orange Salad

Serves 2

my simple salad, screaming to be eaten

Another day, another veg, another simple salad. Like yesterday's post, this salad is so easy to make it's silly to give a recipe, but I think the combination of ingredients is one that most non-Italians would probably not think of on their own, and this is why I feel compelled to mention it.

This salad is remarkably refreshing and best eaten when the sun is shining, in true Springtime spirit. Serve it for lunch with some slices of bread, or with a simple pasta dish. It is not necessarily the kind of thing that everyone will like because of the strong anise flavor in the fennel, but if you can accustom your palate to it, it's worth the sensation of combining that with citrus-y, sweet oranges and large chunks of freshly ground pepper.


1 medium fennel bulb, sliced into rounds and separated into thin lengths
3 ripe oranges, peeled with a knife
2 tbsp good olive oil
1 good squirt of fresh lemon juice
salt & chunky, freshly ground pepper


1. Put chopped fennel in a salad bowl, having removed the stalks and leaves at the top (you can always reserve them for use in a soup or as a garnish or just smell them at your leisure).

2. Peel the oranges with a knife, then cut the wedges out one by one using the knife and leaving all pith and membrane behind. It's time consuming to do it this way, but makes for much more pleasant eating. Add to the bowl with the fennel.

3. Add the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper to the bowl and mix until combined. Make sure the pepper is ground coarsely as that adds not only to the flavor of the salad but texture as well.

4. Leave the salad to marinate in the fridge for half an hour or so; this step is not compulsory, but I find the flavors meld much better together if you do take the time to set it aside. Otherwise, eating it immediately is perfectly fine. :)

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  1. I'm happy you gave this recipe because I would not have known what to do! As I read your posts, and those of many other food bloggers, I realize that I often stick myself in a rut. There's no blaming the lack of farmers' markets, etc. - many of these wonderful ingredients that you've highlighted in your "In Hopes of Spring . . ." posts are readily available at the local grocery. The simple recipes (and great history) you provide are just the push I need!

  2. I love fennel, one of my favorite ways to fix it is to lightly fry it in a little olive oil and then drizzle some basalmic vinegar on top with a tad of salt - its like candy to me. I'm feeling much more spring like!

  3. I do the same type of salad too. Love, love fennel.