Today was one of those days in Montréal where the sunny side of the street is lined with armies of pedestrians drunk on sunshine, while the shady side is completely deserted and cold. Some people have front gardens that are already dry and waiting for spring rain, but most display a mix of snow and garbage, layered over the past season. The air smells wonderful, and the earth like rot. You’re cold one minute and hot the next. You have absolutely nothing to wear. You have no idea what to eat.
Enter fennel. It’s a perfect mid-season vegetable because you can a) always find good bulbs, b) feature it alone or in concert, and c) use it raw or cooked. One of our favourite ways to use this anise-flavoured bulb in the winter is to mix a whole head of butter-sweated fennel slices into mashed potatoes, along with a handful of toasted and cracked fennel seeds, and some roasted garlic.
We also love a very simple salad of shaved fennel, it’s a refreshing counterpoint to crisply roasted birds of all kinds, and we often have it with things that like coleslaw, like these fantastic ribs. It’s the very easiest thing: you shave a head of fennel and add lemon juice, lemon zest, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. The trick is the shaving – you need a mandoline that will give you translucent slices. Ours doesn’t go that thin, but we have a truffle shaver that does the trick. The salt and lemon juice soften the fennel into silky ribbons – just don’t let it sit too long, or it will get mushy. A large head will make side salads for 4-6 people.
We’ve also been roasting fennel, since Fine Cooking showed us how in last September’s issue. If you like the flavour of caramelized onions, you will love caramelized fennel. Again, this simple treatment is more of a technique than a recipe, so fool around with it. The basic treatment is to slice the bulb into quarters, and then slice each piece into four more quarters. You need to trim the base off first, but leave the core intact so the pieces don’t fall apart. Toss them with oil, salt and pepper and roast in a very hot oven (Fine Cooking recommends 500F, we use 425F convection roast) until golden, and crispy on the bottom. Scatter a half cup or so of Parmesan (or Asiago, or Pecorino) over the fennel and roast a few minutes more, until the cheese is bubbling, or until the smell of it is driving you mad.