Hearty and voluptuous with a long neck and a sweet licorice flavor, the fennel bulb, or finocchio dulce, is both workhorse and diva.
When raw, she likes to be sliced thinly and paired with salty and sweet flavors like pancetta and oranges. When cooked, she enjoys settling down with fish, onion, olives, Gruyere, potato, tomato, and sausage. Her emerald green fronds can be reserved and sprinkled over the top of dishes to add a high note of flavor and a splash of color before serving.
I’ve read that the big-bottomed shoot is native to the Mediterranean and has been a staple on tables in Europe and Asia for centuries. However, her popularity in the United States has been limited to the last decade or so, which explains why I never spotted fennel in the grocery stores growing up.
When I first started cooking with fennel a couple of years ago, I was put off by the pungent anise flavor and tough, crunchy texture. Eventually, as I learned to pair it with the right combination of flavors, the vegetable grew on me and it's now a lively addition to my table.
This fennel, apricot, and tomato salad is adapted from Daniel Boulud’s “Braise: A Journey Through International Cuisine” and shows how the right combination of flavors can make fennel shine. In this recipe, thinly sliced fennel is topped with saffron-lime dressing and coupled with intensely sweet dried apricot and mint. The flavors are bright and playful yet beautifully integrated.
Fennel, Apricot, and Tomato Salad
1/2 teaspoon saffron powder
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Finely grated zest and freshly squeezed juice of 1 lime
1-1/2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
6 mint leaves, julienned
Salt and pepper
1 medium-sized fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced lengthwise (I used a mandoline)
2 dried apricots, thinly sliced lengthwise
1/4 cup grape tomatoes, sliced in half
In a small bowl, add the saffron powder to two tablespoons of hot water and let infuse until the water turns bright yellow.
Whisk together the olive oil, lime zest and juice, vinegar, mint leaves, and saffron water. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
In a salad bowl, toss the fennel, apricots, and tomatoes with the vinaigrette and season to taste with salt and pepper.