"Is this going to be for here or to go?" the cashier at the Whole Foods in Westwood asked me. I smirked and considered the question. I was buying a bulb of fennel. I briefly pondered the image of myself sitting at one of the cafe tables in front of the store, eating my bulb of fennel like an apple. "Um, it's to go," I assured the young man. Probably some burnout college student from UCLA.
I needed the fennel for a recipe I had read about in the lasted issue of Donna Hay Magazine. It was the first recipe in an article devoted to dishes made with bacon. Can you imagine anything more delightful? An entire article about the pleasures that only bacon can bring. Ms. Hay and her team had come up with a very interesting salad of spinach, green and yellow wax beans, bacon and fennel, which is roasted in the oven until it becomes golden and caramelized. When I made it, however, I sort of jazzed it up with a different dressing (hers was a very simple dressing of just olive oil and red wine vinegar, whereas mine uses a combination of walnut and olive oil, sherry vinegar as well as two different kinds of mustard) and, inspired by the highly desirable pig candy at Lou, I added a little cayenne pepper to the brown sugar that coats and then melts onto the smokey strips of swine.
I've made this salad twice in three days and what's more, I could eat it again tomorrow. What does that tell you?
(for the Sherry Walnut Vinaigrette)
3 tablespoons Sherry vinegar
3/4 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
3/4 teaspoon grainy mustard
4 tablespoons walnut oil
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
(for the salad)
6 slices of bacon
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into wedges, fennel fronds reserved
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
a handful of yellow wax beans, trimmed and blanched
a handful of green beans, trimmed and blanched
a couple handfuls of baby spinach leaves
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
First make the dressing. In a small bowl combine the sherry vinegar, dijon and grainy mustard. Slowly pour in the oils, first the walnut and then the olive, whisking to emulsify with the vinegar and mustard. Season with salt and pepper. (Actually what I did was this little trick I saw on Martha Stewart, where you take a mustard jar that is basically empty, with the exception of the remaining mustard clinging to the sides of the jar. You add vinegar, oils and the grainy mustard and give it a shake, and it cleans off the sides of the jar and emulsifies the dressing at the same time. Waste not, what not)
Place the bacon on a baking sheet lined in parchment paper. Sprinkle the bacon with the brown sugar, cayenne pepper and a couple grindings of black pepper. Toss the bacon in the sugar and pepper to coat and then lay out flat.
On a separate pan, toss the wedges of fennel with the olive oil and some salt and pepper. Place both pans in the oven. Roast the fennel in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until is it golden and slightly browned around the edges. The salad is better if the bacon isn't really crispy so cook the bacon for only about 10 to 12 minutes total, turning each slice once. Once the bacon is done, remove from oven and let cool a little while the fennel finishes.
Usually when I make a salad I like to combine the lettuce and all the ingredients that aren't soft, like sliced tomatoes or say avocado, and toss it all the dressing, and then divide it between the plates, but for this one, I sort of arrange it on the plates and then drizzle with the dressing. So to serve, mound a big handful of spinach on each plate. Divide the green and yellow wax beans between each plate and then top with the roasted fennel and bacon and finally the dressing. Grind over a little more pepper and shower with a little of the fennel fronds.
Okay, so I have a confession. I literally licked my plate clean, after I ate this salad. True story. Yes, I know. I am a pig. Although, in my own defense, I was completely alone. Anyway, the flavors in the salad work so well together. The walnut oil compliments the crunchy brightness of the green and yellow wax beans and the mustards go perfectly with the brown sugar glazed bacon. Of course bacon and spinach are the best of friends while the carmelized fennel echos the bacon's smokey undertaste. The flavors are sort of reminiscent of the sweet, smokey, tangy thing going on in German Potato salad. It's a great salad for the fall. It sort of seems like it should have some kind of cheese in there somewhere, but honestly, it doesn't really need it. I wouldn't change a thing.