In Southern California, fennel grows wild along the highway, a product of some long ago wayward seed blown by the wind or dropped by a bird. The frothy fronds with their wispy yellow flowers grow as tall as a tree alongside the stretch of coastline going through Camp Pendleton between Los Angeles and San Diego. I’ve often considered pulling over to see what they’d be like if I tried to dig one up, but I have yet to brave the highway traffic to do so.
Thought to have been brought to California by the Spanish hundreds of years ago, today wild fennel is considered by many to be an invasive plant. But never fear, if you’d like to grow it in your garden, you can buy non-invasive varieties. Easier still, just buy it in the market. While it’s available almost year-round, the peak fennel season is autumn through early spring. Look for bulbs that are firm to the touch and compact, about the size of an orange. The bulb should be very pale green to white and the stalks and fronds (leaves) are a medium to darker green.
Related to anise and celery, fennel has a light licorice taste which mellows substantially when cooked. All parts of the plant are edible, but it’s the bulb that has the most flavor, raw or cooked. The delicate leaves make a nice garnish and the stalks can be added to soups and stocks. Even the seeds and the pollen are edible. In India, fennel seeds are often candied and chewed to freshen the breath and aid in digestion after a spicy meal. The bright yellow fennel pollen has become a popular ingredient in contemporary restaurants as a plate garnish or even as a crust on fish. As an added bonus, fennel is extremely low in calories and high in both Vitamin A and potassium, so it’s a healthy addition to any meal.
Southern Italy and Southern California share a similar climate so it’s not surprising that fennel grows wild in Italy as well and is a common ingredient in Mediterranean cooking. Fennel is excellent when paired with fish, saffron, white wine, tomatoes, (sounds like the makings of Bouillabaisse doesn’t it?) or just about anything from that region of the world. Cooked fennel makes a great addition to soups, stews, and pasta sauces. I also recommend you try eating fennel raw; for a nice crunch and unique flavor, add it to any salad or appetizer in place of celery. This salad works well for late winter or early spring as all the ingredients should be available right now. The flavors are complimentary; sweetness in the apple and pomegranate balance out the fennel and the toasted hazelnuts. For instructions on how to clean a whole fresh pomegranate, check out this post on Butternut Squash Soup with Pomegranate Seeds.
Next time I make the drive down to San Diego in winter, you can bet I’ll be on the lookout for those wispy fronds along the side of the road. One of these days I just might be brave enough to stop and forage for some wild fennel to go with my dinner.
Early Spring Salad with Fennel, Watercress, Pomegranate, and Hazelnut Vinaigrette
Fennel Salad with watercress, Pomegranate, and Hazelnut Vinaigrette
Keyword: fennel, pomegranate, salad, healthy
For the salad:
2-3tablespoonshazelnut vinaigretterecipe below
1/4cuphazelnuts1 oz weight, toasted and chopped
3ozextra virgin olive oil
1ozchampagne or white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
If starting with raw hazelnuts, toast them first (see below) and then make the vinaigrette.
To make the salad:
Cut the stalks off the fennel bulb down to about 1 inch above the bulb. Cut off the root end and wash the outside of the bulb. Cut the bulb in half and using a mandolin slicer or a very sharp knife, shave the fennel into paper-thin pieces, starting with the bulb on its side (not the cut side).
Cut the thickest stems off the watercress and separate into pieces.
If you need to, clean the pomegranate, reserving the seeds (some stores sell just the seeds).
Cut the apple in half and cut out the core. Lay the apple with the cut side down and slice about 1/8” thick or use a Mandoline Slicer (this is the one I use).
Peel the carrot, then using the peeler, cut long “ribbons” the length of the carrot. Put the ribbons in a bowl of ice water for about 10 minutes where they will curl and crisp up.
In a large bowl add the shaved fennel, watercress, pomegranate seeds, sliced apple and carrot ribbons. Toss gently to combine. Add 2-3 tablespoons of dressing to your personal taste and gently combine. Serve immediately.
To make the vinaigrette:
If using raw hazelnuts, toast them first (instructions below)
Chop the hazelnuts into ¼ inch or smaller pieces.
Combine the olive oil, vinegar, sliced shallots and hazelnuts in a small bowl and whisk together. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Or, shake all ingredients together in a clean jar with a tight fitting lid.
How to toast raw hazelnuts:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Spread the nuts out in a single layer on a sheet pan and place them in the oven for 15-20 minutes until they start to turn brown. The skins on the hazelnuts will start to crack and pull off the nut and they will smell heavenly.
Allow them to cool and then place them on a clean dish towel. Gather up the hazelnuts in the towel and rub them against each other for 10-15 seconds. This will rub off the skins. Pick out the clean hazelnuts and repeat as necessary. Not every fleck of the skins will come off, but that’s ok, just get as much as possible off.
You can make the vinaigrette the night before, but I would add the toasted hazelnuts less than an hour before you serve it because they can lose their crunch sitting too long in the vinaigrette.