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Food of Marathoner­s

- By Ari LeVaux, Flash in the Pan Columnist

Every year, the growers will bring their frizzy-headed fennel bulbs to the farmer’s market. And then they’ve got some explaining to do.

The customers wish to buy this attractive vegetable, but have no idea what to do with it. Maybe they’ve brought one home before, only to be stumped, and are now twice shy. So they ask, “What do you do with fennel?”

The answers are well-worn. We are told to grill it, braise it, saute it with garlic and olive oil, and other ways to cook the life out of it, because few have the confidence to suggest we eat it raw.

The licorice-like flavor can be intimidati­ng. You may not think that you want bite after bite. So we drench it in sauce and try to cook it out. But when we look forward to grilling season, it isn’t for the grilled fennel. And any cooking technique will ruin some of its better qualities. Cooking is like forced aging; what’s the hurry? If you really want to try braising fennel, start with the stumps; you cut off the bottom when trimming the bulbs.

I look for ways to make the most of its stronger qualities and put that aromatic, juicy crispness to work. Salads, for the most part. A plate of mere slices, sprinkled with salt and drizzled with XVOO, make a lovely snack. Fennel may rarely make it as a main course, but as a side it can play an important part in a stellar meal.

Whether in coleslaw or some other raw, salad-like form, fennel really shines alongside seafood. At the Atlantic Cafe in Edgartown, Massachuse­tts, last week, I had a fennel and arugula salad served alongside octopus. A few days later I served mint fennel coleslaw alongside an eight-pound bluefish that my son reeled in. I added shreds of mint, to round out the fennel fragrance with more complexity, and make it taste less like a piece of black licorice. Cabbage-based coleslaw might just be a thing of the past.

The city of Marathon, after which the race is named, is itself named after fennel, which translates to “maratho” in Greek, while Marathon literally means “place with mucho fennel.”

This might just be a coincidenc­e, but nonetheles­s teases the imaginatio­n that it might be connected to longevity. It’s high in nutrients and fiber and low in calories, which is a good thing unless you’re starving. Fennel also aids in digestion by reducing bowel inflammati­on, and is thought to suppress gas-causing bacteria in the gut.

Where none of this is true, it wouldn’t change how I feel about this crunchy zesty plant, or how it performs alongside fish. Now that I know what to do with fennel, I no longer fear it. Instead it’s the fennel that needs to be afraid of me!

To cut a fennel bulb, first slice off the bottom, where the roots were attached, and the stalks, right as they emerge green from the white bulb. The stalks themselves aren’t good for much except in the stock pot, but the thin leaves – often called “fronds” – make a nice garnish, and also work as a fresh herb. I add the chopped fronds to my coleslaw, for the lovely green capillarie­s in the coleslaw that double-down on that fabulous fennel flavor.

Slice it in half, top-to-bottom, and lay the flat sides down. Many people cut out the core in the middle, but I don’t understand why. It tastes like the rest of the plant, and might be more tender.

Slice the halves thinly, in the same top-tobottom direction. You can go with those slices, or hold the sliced half bulb in place and cut the slices crosswise into dice.

Sliced or diced, on fish or your favorite dish, fennel is your Greek friend. It doesn’t speak English, but now you know enough to communicat­e in fennelese.

 ?? Photo by Ari LeVaux ?? Marathon Green Salad is named after maratho from the Greek meaning a “place with a lot of fennel.”
Photo by Ari LeVaux Marathon Green Salad is named after maratho from the Greek meaning a “place with a lot of fennel.”

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