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Hearty lentil salad delivers duo of fennel

I confess to some confusion over some supermarket sales strategies.

Produce priced by the piece puzzles me at times. I understand the need to individually price items that would weigh so little that their per-pound price would seem astronomical. Organic lettuce by the head for $2.50? Seems fair, particularly when the price has some wiggle room, season and size depending.

Yet some items’ fixed cost defies explanation when their size is so variable. Fennel is one of these, sold at Medford Food 4 Less for $1.98 per bulb, stalks and fronds attached, no matter how large or small the specimen. And fennel, for reasons unbeknownst to me, wildly ranges in size, although its cost never does. So of course, I buy fennel when the bulbs are big and skip the small ones.

What to do with fennel? I’m asked this question in the produce section or checkout line about every other time I buy it. People first ask what it is. Yes, it’s often called anise, but that’s actually a different plant and also a member of the carrot family. And fennel only faintly tastes of licorice. For the record, I don’t like black licorice.

Popular in European cuisines, fennel is crunchy when raw and makes a nice addition to wintertime salads or an assortment of crudité. When cooked, it becomes meltingly tender and silky. Dice is up and use it as you would an onion. I love it in soups, stews and risottos.

Or add the stalks to a pot of trimmings for stock, as you would ribs of celery. Actually, both are common in French-style soups. I even diced fennel stalks and used them in place of celery for a recipe that ran with this week’s food-section column.

Among my favorite ways to eat fennel, which I’ve advocated in past posts, is to quarter the bulbs and braise in butter or other fat before deglazing and braising with wine and/or stock. Then I arrange the fennel around a plate of cooked Puy lentils, preferably with sautéed wild mushrooms, and top the whole thing with a poached egg.

Served that way, bigger heavier bulbs are definitely better and worth snapping up at the store. So it didn’t come as much of a surprise that I already had a large fennel bulb in my refrigerator when I came home from grocery shopping.

With so much fennel on hand, I’m inclined toward both cooked and raw preparations, including this salad that simmers the stalks and also pairs crunchy fennel bulb with the toothsome Puy lentils I favor. It’s courtesy of Tribune News Service.

Vegan Lentil and Fennel Salad

2 fennel bulbs

1 pound small lentils, preferably le Puy or beluga, rinsed and drained

2 celery stalks, thinly sliced

1 onion, peeled and finely diced

2 leeks, trimmed, halved lengthwise, washed well and cut into thin half-moons

2 carrots, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed

1/4 cup sherry or balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1/2 cup chopped dill

Pick fronds off the fennel and reserve for garnish. Thinly slice stalks and reserve bulbs.

Combine the lentils, celery, onion, leeks, carrots, sliced fennel and 1 tablespoon salt in a large saucepan. Add enough cold water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until lentils are just tender, for about 45 minutes. If water absorbs fully before lentils are cooked through, add more.

Drain lentils if needed, then transfer to a large bowl and add the vinegar, oil, mustard and dill. Fold until evenly coated, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Let sit for at least 10 minutes.

Halve fennel bulbs, core and thinly slice. Scatter over salad, along with reserved fennel fronds. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve.

Lentil salad without sliced fennel can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days. Top with sliced fennel right before serving.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Tribune News Service photo