Warm Fennel and Watercress Salad

by | Oct 10, 2008

As the leaves transition to the warm colors of autumn, so must our dinner plates turn to reflect the changing seasons. Today’s recipe uses fennel, a crisp, hearty bulb that is at its best during the fall and winter seasons.

Raw fennel is slightly sweet and has a taste similar to anise or black licorice which, honestly, I struggle to enjoy. Cooked fennel, however, is much tamer. When thinly sliced and cooked, the sugars in fennel caramelize and it takes on an almost citrus-like zest that lends it the unique property of being both a vegetable and an herb.

This brightness of flavor makes for an excellent paring with the spicy, delicate leaves of watercress. Cooking fennel and adding it to raw greens creates a satisfying, warm salad for the chilly fall evenings.

My recipe is very simple and inexpensive. For one main course or two side salads you need one medium fennel bulb, one bunch of live watercress, 1/3 cup of walnuts, half a shallot, half a lemon and a few pomegranate seeds. I used the white pomegranate I bought Saturday at the market, but halved grapes would work just as nicely if you do not have or are intimidated by pomegranates.

First dice your shallot and set aside. Also clean your pomegranate (instructions to come) and anything else you want to add. Prepare fennel by removing the base then cutting it in half and removing the triangular core as shown. Place cut sides down on cutting board and cut in half again, lengthwise (parallel to stems). Thinly slice the fennel until the white part of the bulb is entirely cut.

Heat olive oil in a pan on medium heat until it swirls easily. Add shallot and walnut pieces (I break them with my hands). Cook until onion becomes translucent, about 5 minutes. Before the shallot begins to brown, add fennel and stir. Season with sea salt and pepper to taste. Increase heat to medium high and continue cooking, stirring occasionally. When fennel begins to soften (about 5 min), squeeze the juice of half a lemon into the pan (do not skip this step). Fennel is done when it is tender and slightly browned, about 10 minutes.

In the meantime rinse watercress. Cut off all the stems in one slice, as close to the leaves as possible. Place leaves in a large bowl. When fennel is done cooking, add it to watercress and toss with tongs. Dress salad with high-quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Add fruit, salt and pepper to taste and toss again. Serve immediately.

One of my favorite variations of this recipe is to add grilled or pan-seared shrimp. Fresh shrimp is best, but even frozen shrimp will do. The most important thing with shrimp is that you clean them well and do not overcook them, because they get tough and lose their delicacy. Remove from heat just as they become opaque (5 min or so, depending on size).

Alternatively, roasted golden beets pair beautifully with fennel and can be prepared ahead of time. Peel and dice beets, coat with olive oil and sea salt and roast at 375 for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Toss them into your salad at the same time as the cooked fennel.
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One Response to “Warm Fennel and Watercress Salad”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is an AMAZING recipe, one of our favorites! The acid from the lemon and vinegar is perfect for the sweet fennel, especially if you add shrimp.

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