I don’t know how grocery stores do it. I buy fresh fennel maybe twice a year. But when I do, it’s there amid the other vegetables and fruits looking freshly picked and ready to prepare. Then, I’m glad for the mysterious other customers who also must buy it because I can’t believe a store would keep it in stock just for me.
Fennel is native to the Mediterranean coast and is familiar in Italian cuisine under its name, finocchio. It’s a light green bulb with a licorice taste and resembles a stunted version of celery.
Fennel plays a strong role in the Mediterranean’s rich historical, cultural and literary tradition. Its Greek name is marathon, and the famous Battle of Marathon, fought in a field of fennel, is where the Greeks beat back the Persians in 490 BCE cementing two hundred years of Classic Greek civilization. Legends from that battle led to the Olympic event where the racers run 26 miles and 385 yards. This is about the distance from Marathon to Athens that Pheidippides ran in order to announce the results of the battle to the people of Athens. Because of this, it is also a symbol of courage.
This particular salad is one I had at Ristorante Ideale on Green Street in North Beach in San Francisco. The clean taste of the finocchio combined with pungent and creamy gorgonzola, sweet orange, crunchy walnuts and salty capers made this a special salad. It’s worthwhile to get good gorgonzola since it is the highlight.
Gorgonzola is an Italian blue cheese, a category of cheeses that have mold or bacteria added to them resulting in blue veins or spots, and a distinct salty and sharp taste. The French version is called Roquefort, the English is called Stilton, and any good blue cheese may be used in this salad. If you go to Oregon or have friends there, have them stop by the Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon and bring you their Caveman Blue Cheese that won the Super Gold Medal at the World Cheese Award in London in 2014. My sister-in-law brought some when she visited and it was unforgettable. Warning: it costs $130 for a four-and-a-half pound wheel.
Italian Finocchio Orange Salad
1 finocchio bulb, very thinly sliced
1/2 cup crumbled gorgonzola cheese
2 oranges, rind removed and thinly sliced
1/3 cup roughly chopped walnuts
3 tablespoons drained capers
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons white or dark balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
Wash and trim the finocchio bulb and trim off the base and the leafy tops. Cut the bulb in half and slice each half as thin as possible. Arrange in a low wide bowl.
Cut off the peel of the orange with a sharp knife and cut into thin slices. Coarsely chop the walnuts. Drain the capers.
Whisk the olive oil and vinegar with salt and pepper to taste.
Place the orange slices over the finocchio slices then sprinkle with capers and walnuts. Crumble gorgonzola over the top and refrigerate to chill.
Just before serving, whisk dressing and pour over the salad. Toss and serve.