I celebrated Thanksgiving with my parents in the Bay Area. On Thursday, we stepped away from the kitchen to take a walk in the wooded park across the street. As we wandered along the trails, we inhaled the intoxicating aroma of wild fennel, a native of the Mediterranean region that grows remarkably well in the Bay Area's similar climate. Sweet, spicy, and calming, its anise scent filled the air around us. The soft, feathery leaves and hollow stems had reached the end of their growing season and the plant's umbrella-like clusters of yellow flowers were drying up, curling outward. Now is the best time to collect fennel seeds, as the weather cools and the seeds mature on the flower heads.
Wild fennel is prized for its seeds, citrusy leaves, and flavorful dried flowers (sometimes called fennel "pollen"). Domesticated fennel, on the other hand, is grown primarily for its fist-sized, multi-layered bulb. This bulb is not an underground root; it is the swollen base of the stem. Like other edible plant stems--celery, asparagus, and bamboo--fennel can be a particular challenge in the kitchen because it is naturally fibrous. After all, the stem plays the important role of holding the plant upright while it grows.
Cooking softens the tough plant and caramelizes its sugars--many braises, stews, and gratins come to life with the addition of fennel. It can also be pickled, grilled, or added to risotto. Despite its sturdiness, fennel can certainly be enjoyed raw. The key is to cut it as thinly as possible. I like to shave the bulb into paper-thin slices and toss them in a lemon juice and olive oil dressing with arugula and poached shrimp. This refreshing salad satisfies my yearning for crisp, crunchy vegetables all winter long.
Poached Shrimp, Fennel, and Meyer Lemon Salad
Poaching sounds complicated, but doesn't take that long -- only two minutes for shrimp. Seek out raw shrimp with their shells on. The shells add irreplaceable, briny flavor. If you can't find Meyer lemons, use grapefruit or blood orange instead. I love the way arugula adds a peppery note to this salad, but feel free to substitute any leafy green you like.
Serves 4 as a first course
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 cup white wine
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 bay leaves
¼ teaspoon whole peppercorns
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
2 Meyer lemons
½ pound raw shrimp with shells on
1 bulb fennel
4 cups arugula
¼ cup cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Toast the fennel seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat. Tilt and shake the skillet every so often for about 90 seconds. As soon as the seeds darken and smell intensely fragrant, remove the skillet from the heat.
In a large, shallow pan, combine 1 cup water with the white wine, rosemary, garlic, bay leaves, whole peppercorns, ½ teaspoon salt, and the zest of 1 Meyer lemon. Bring this mixture to a gentle simmer, then drop in the shrimp. Poach the shrimp until they turn bright pink, about 2 minutes, depending on the size of the shrimp. Turn off the heat, but leave the shrimp in the poaching liquid to cool.
Meanwhile, cut off the fennel's leafy tops (the leaves can be saved and added to the salad), trim the root end, and peel away any bruised layers. Slice the bulb as thinly as possible and place the slices in a large bowl. Add the zest from the remaining Meyer lemon. Slice off the lemon's stem and blossom ends, then cut away the remaining peel and white pith, following the curve of the lemon from top to bottom. Slice the lemon into thin rounds and add them to the bowl with the fennel.
When the shrimp are cool enough to handle, peel and discard their shells. Add the peeled shrimp to the bowl, along with the arugula, cilantro, olive oil, the juice from the remaining Meyer lemon (approximately 2 tablespoons), the toasted fennel seeds, remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Toss gently to combine. Taste for seasoning, adding another pinch of salt, if needed. Serve promptly.