Sunday, May 5, 2013

Fennel & citrus salad with spinach and chickpeas

As spring settles in here in the Mid-West, I begin to crave cool, fresh fruits and vegetables that feel as though they sprang up out of the Earth. There's something about that crunch and moisture on first bite that makes me feel like I'm eating an awesome gift from nature. One of my recent obsessions has been fresh fennel, which actually does grow surprisingly well in this area, but I've been having trouble racking my brain of what to do with it.

Fennel is a unique vegetable in both texture and flavor. It has a white, hard-textured bulb at it's base, with long, celery-like stalks topped with herbal throngs. It has an aromatic, spiced flavor, similar to anise, that is cool and refreshing, yet it seems as though it could easily get muddled by certain overbearing flavors. Thankfully, it got stuck in my head the other day that its subtle sweetness might be awakened by the brightness of fresh citrus; and wow, was I right!

This recipe is my first attempt at giving fennel a proper place in my cuisine repertoire. It is a highly under-appreciated vegetable, so I very much recommend that you give it a try, especially if you've never had it before. It can be enjoyed raw or cooked, or even as a unique component in fresh juice. 

I hope you enjoy my recipe below, which I think showcases this awesome vegetable in all its glory. The salad is very versatile and customizable, but I find the spinach and chickpea to complement the fennel and citrus perfectly. The dressing, a homemade orange vinaigrette, melds with the flavor of the fennel and really brings this salad to life.

Fennel & citrus salad with spinach and chickpeas

1 fennel, with bulb, stalks, and throngs
1 half large white onion
1 bag fresh spinach
2 cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
4 medium-sized oranges
1 half lemon
1/3 cup olive oil
anise seed
smoked paprika (optional)
salt & pepper

Separate the bulb of the fennel from the stalks. Slice the bulb thinly, in long slices, along with the half onion. Place the onion and fennel bulb in a skillet on medium-high heat along with a tablespoon of olive oil. Sauté until tender and allow to cool. With the remaining fennel stalks, slice into bite-size pieces all the way up the stalk and mince the throngs.

Cut the ends off of 2 of the oranges and discard. Slice down the rind and remove white pith. Now attempt to cut out the individual wedges as one would a grapefruit -- so as to remove the membranes, which would become bitter in the salad. Add the wedges to a serving bowl along with sautéed fennel bulb and onion, fennel stalks and throngs, spinach, and chickpeas.

In a small bowl, combine remaining olive oil along with the juice of 2 remaining oranges and one half lemon. Stir in around one-half teaspoon of each anise seed, thyme, sage, smoked paprika, and salt and pepper. Stir, and season additionally to taste. Pour into serving bowl and toss. Chill or serve immediately.

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