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Special game, fennel salad

Every now and then, Brandon and I like to play a special game. It has no real name, but if I were to give it one, it might be called the “Your Partner Has No Past” game. It goes like this: whenever one of us mentions a previous boyfriend or girlfriend, the other feigns deafness, dumbness, or outright incomprehension. For example:

Molly: “Oooh! I love this song! Turn it up! [Ex-boyfriend] put it on a mix tape for me when we first met.”

Brandon: “What? Who did? You mean I did? I did, right?”

It’s not so much that we dislike knowing about each other’s previous significant others — because in fact, I take a sort of perverse interest in the topic. No, it’s just that it’s so fun to pretend that your partner came out of the ether, fully and perfectly formed. You know — the way that Athena sprung from Zeus’s head? It makes us both look terribly talented and precocious, like minor geniuses in the romance department. To wit:

Brandon: “Oh baby, you’re such a good kisser. It’s really amazing, since I was your first kiss and everything. Riiiiight?”

Molly: “Of course! [Wink, wink.] And you, mon cheri, are so good at hugging! It’s really amazing how good you are, especially since I’m the first person you’ve ever hugged. Riiiiight?”

As you can see, our game is really quite fun. You should try it — so long as both players are in on the plan, of course. Otherwise, it could get messy.

But all that said — sex, lies, and special games — I have to admit that I am actually quite grateful for Brandon’s ex-girlfriends, and one of them in particular. Without Gillian’s wise tutelage, he would be, he tells me, “a terrible hippie.” He would also douse all edibles with inedible — for most people — amounts of vinegar. And he might never have done any homework, or made it through college. Clearly, I owe the woman quite a lot. But more than anything else, I owe her — or, technically, her parents — a big one for teaching Brandon about shaved fennel salads.

Apparently, Gillian’s parents once owned a CD-ROM of Julia Child’s series Cooking with Master Chefs. In one of the episodes, Alice Waters, Patron Saint of All Things Fresh, teaches Julia how to make a shaved fennel, mushroom, and Parmesan salad. Gillian’s parents were quite taken with the idea, and it quickly became a regular in their repertoire. Brandon tasted it for the first time in their home, and now, one breakup and a few years later, it is a regular in ours. To Gillian’s parents, I say: things may not have turned out as you imagined, but inadvertently, you sure did a good thing for me and my man. Thank you.

This salad is a wonderful cool-weather standby: crisp, fragrant, a little cheer for the jaw. Now that the soft, baby lettuces of summer are gone, it’s time for fall’s sweet fennel and earthy mushrooms. Shaved paper-thin and layered on a platter, drizzled with olive oil and fresh lemon juice, this is what salad looks like when it wears its winter whites — or, rather, pale greens and browns. Finished with curls of sweet, fruity Parmigiano Reggiano, it makes a lovely Sunday lunch for two, with a hunk of baguette, a pat of butter, and a piece of fruit for dessert. If you’re anything like us, it might even inspire a special game — something involving forks, stealth, and the last bite of salad.

Shaved Fennel Salad with Mushrooms and Parmesan
Adapted from Alice Waters and Julia Child

Part of what makes this salad feel special is its elegant, layered presentation. But if you’re short on time — or just don’t feel like fussing — you can certainly toss it in a bowl like any other salad. As for variations, you can try adding a dash of truffle oil for some sophistication and snazz, or, if you’re feeling frisky, try replacing the mushrooms with paper-thin slices of Asian pear. We thought of that a couple of days ago, when we shared an Asian pear after big plates of this salad. The mingling of flavors was fantastic. Needless to say, it’s next on our list.

1 medium fennel bulb, about 10-12 ounces
5 or 6 small mushrooms, preferably crimini or white button
Good-quality olive oil
A lemon
Sea salt, such as Maldon
A hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Freshly ground black pepper

First, prepare the fennel. If it still has its feathery fronds, cut them off at the base of their stalks, and discard them. Rinse the bulb under cool water, and dry it thoroughly. Using a vegetable peeler or paring knife, trim away any bruises or brown spots on the very outermost “skin” of the fennel. Cut the bulb in half from root to stalk, and trim the root end. Using a sharp knife or a mandoline, slice the fennel as thinly you possibly can.

Now, prepare the mushrooms. Wipe away any dirt on their surface with a damp paper towel, and trim off and discard the stem end. Using a sharp knife or a mandoline, slice the mushrooms very thinly.

Assemble the salad in layers on a large platter or, if you prefer, on individual plates. First, make a layer of fennel slices. Drizzle lightly with olive oil. Then place a layer of mushrooms on top of the fennel. Drizzle lightly with lemon juice, and season with salt. Using a vegetable peeler, cut thin shavings of the cheese, and arrange them on top of the mushrooms. Add another layer of fennel, followed by a light drizzle of oil, and then another layer of mushrooms, lemon juice, salt, and cheese. Repeat until you run out of fennel and mushrooms; you might have two layers of each, or you might have more; it doesn’t much matter. Finish the salad with a good drizzle of lemon juice and a hearty splash of oil, and garnish with a few shavings of cheese. Serve immediately, with salt and pepper to taste.

Yield: 2 quite generous servings, or 4 side servings


Anonymous Taryn said...

Oh how I can relate! The ex thing is a touchy subject, but I love that you admit to your 'perversities'. I too am thankful for much, but unfortunately not for anything as tasty as that fennel salad looks! I should have to try this.

By the way, I am absolutely in love with your food blog, your writing and your beautiful photography!

11:12 PM, October 16, 2006  
Anonymous pitofmystomach said...

It looks like you have a cookbook in the making: Recipes From My Man's Ex-Girlfriends. Good luck, and don't forget to mention me on the acknowledgements page, after all of the ex-girlfriends, of course.


2:07 AM, October 17, 2006  
Blogger Joan said...

I JUST watched that episode, and thought that would be absolutely delicious! I'm very glad to have this confirmation.

6:23 AM, October 17, 2006  
Blogger hannah said...

tell gillian i said thank you too.

7:01 AM, October 17, 2006  
Anonymous Luisa said...

You, my friend, are just too cute. :)

7:42 AM, October 17, 2006  
Blogger Garrett said...

That whole post was frickin adorable. >^.^<

7:53 AM, October 17, 2006  
Blogger wheresmymind said...

Steph is always grateful for my previous g/f's for giving me such good 'training' (whatever that means!) lol

7:56 AM, October 17, 2006  
Anonymous Leah said...

Molly, if you had any idea just how much this entire post made my day! You are wonderful, my dear.

9:54 AM, October 17, 2006  
Blogger christianne said...

How funny. My ex's name is Brandon, so I can't help but think of him everytime I read your blog entries. Ex-lovers are always a tricky subject, but they always shape and influence us in our future relationships, don't you think? They especially shape my cooking -- its hard to cook someone else's favorite meal for a new loved one. But eventhough I haven't been able to make your past few recipes for my sweetie (in addition to bananas, he's also allergic to mushrooms!) I wouldn't trade him for anything.

10:12 AM, October 17, 2006  
Anonymous hag said...

I love the new look! I think it has been awhile since i checked in with you. Thanks for the great recipe, I love fennel and the hilarious post....a great way to 'deal' with the ex-factor.

7:22 PM, October 17, 2006  
Anonymous jules said...

I love shaved fenel salads too. Pear works really well as does fennel, ricotta and fresh peas, but my favourite is probably fennel, artichoke hearts and parmesan.

reading about your game made me really wish I wasn't single.

10:41 PM, October 17, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This looks goooooooood !!

- Steven Burda, MBA
e-mail: steven.burda.mba @gmail.com


11:01 PM, October 17, 2006  
Anonymous robin said...

I love asian pears in salads... I usually slice them thin, spray a bit of pam spray on them and broil them so they caramelize, let them cool and toss them in the salad. I usually use them with dried cranberries and gorgonzola (and a raspberry/balsamic/walnut oil/macademia oil vinaigrette)... this fennel salad sounds great, will have to try it!

11:03 PM, October 17, 2006  
Blogger Kay said...

oh! that sounds delish and I must make it soon.
Also, my bf and I do the same thing, only it's a little more *ahem* racy...

11:42 PM, October 17, 2006  
Blogger Pille said...

I wonder if I should give fennel another go. The few times I've tried it, I didn't like it. But then, I haven't tried your braised fennel, and maybe the braised version and this salad are all that takes to convert me into a fennel-fan?

12:33 AM, October 18, 2006  
Anonymous maryeats said...

I like your game much better than our "dude, that wasn't me." "Uh, yes, it was." "Uh, no it wasn't. "Are you sure? I totally thought that was you?" Dude, no it wasn't."

7:36 AM, October 18, 2006  
Blogger Nikki said...

Ha! I love the 'game'. We usually try not to mention exes at all because I'm the type of person that randomly calls people by names that are not their own. Yeah, that's never fun.

Julia Child is my idol. I love her so dearly. :) Oh and fennel too. Fennel is great.

10:27 AM, October 18, 2006  
Blogger Lia said...

I must remember to play this game when we're in Brazil for New Year's and sure to see an ex or two. I usually like to play the 100 questions about everyone you've ever dated game and let's just say that one never ends too well.

But thank God for Gillian! This salad sounds amazing. I need to go get myself a mandoline.

I wonder if she reads your blog :)

11:19 AM, October 18, 2006  
Anonymous bea at La Tartine Gourmande said...

Very funny Molly. I loved your story and would adore this salad, promis juré, si je mens je vais en enfer!

11:45 AM, October 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm just starting to really appreciate fennel. And fennel shaved on the mandoline makes having a kitchen toy worthwhile! I'm still not totally sold on raw fennel, though I love it roasted, or in cioppino.

6:12 AM, October 19, 2006  
Blogger Acme Instant Food said...

I think I might actually be a fennel virgin. It's time to live dangerously.

As always, your stories are so well-written and delightful to read. Thank you for the posts!

8:14 AM, October 19, 2006  
Anonymous shari said...

hello my dear.
you and brandon are too cute. this fennel salad sounds quite tasty. i like the sound of adding asian pear slices. yum. xo shari

9:58 AM, October 19, 2006  
Blogger Helene said...

It is such a feminine trait to dig into the ex thing. I love your game.
Your post made my day. Thnak you for sharing.

10:15 AM, October 19, 2006  
Blogger AnnieKNodes said...

When Fred and I first started dating, he played a game with me called, "Bring Your Ex To Anne's Improv Show." Um, yeah. We quit playing that shortly after the first round.

I think I like your and Brandon's game better. And I certainly like that salad!

12:58 PM, October 19, 2006  
Anonymous Katie said...

This is the second comment I've left about an archived recipe. The salad here looks delicious. I actually make one very similar to it whenever fennel is in season. But really, I want to talk about the oatmeal cookies with brown butter frosting which are fantastic. Even better, the brown butter frosting on the "spiced pumpkin cake with caramel icing" on the epicurious website. Of course, omitting the caramel icing. It was the perfect seasonal dessert... very pumpkinny. Thanks for all the yummy inspiration.

1:47 PM, October 19, 2006  
Blogger Janice said...

Ha, I love this post! I like to tease my boyfriend whenever we see a girl he knows. Whenever I ask, "Who's that?" I try to get him to nonchalantly answer, "Oh, her? She's my ex-lover." I think it's funny...others probably not so much.

Next time, try throwing in a little thinly shaved radish in with the fennel, parmesan, lemon and olive oil. Incredibly refreshing!

2:38 PM, October 19, 2006  
Anonymous shelly said...

I love your fennel salad. It's unfortunate I don't have someone to share it with. :(

11:04 PM, October 19, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Aww, thank you, Taryn!

Pitofmystomach, hmm, you might be onto something there! But you know, I think there's a similar book that's already been published - written by two women and filled with recipes from their ex-boyfriends (and presumably, some of those ex-boyfriends' ex-girlfriends!). I think one of Brandon's former housemates in NYC had a copy, actually...

What a funny coincidence, Joan! It is absolutely delicious.

Hannah, will do. xo

Thank you, dear Luisa. And you're awfully cute too. xo

Thanks, Garrett!

Ah yes, "training" - I know exactly what Steph means, wheresmymind! I owe Gillian quite a debt of gratitude for her years of "training" Brandon. And I suppose he owes my exes a good thank you too...

Oh Leah, that makes me so happy! Glad to see / hear from you, my dear.

I agree wholeheartedly, Christianne. It is amazing how much past relationships shape our current ones, in both good and bad ways. I'm so grateful for them, either way, and for what they teach us about each other and ourselves - and about cooking, of course.

So glad that you like the redesign, hag! And the recipe too - it's a keeper.

Jules, I too wish you weren't single! I always loved living alone, and I had so much great girlfriendy fun between my last boyfriend and Brandon, but I know - in the end, it's awfully fun to *stop* being single too. So keep on making all that beautiful food of yours, and someone is bound to get hungry and come a-lookin', right?

Thanks, Steven.

Oooh, robin! Caramelized Asian pears? That sounds like a must-do.

Pille, here's what I think: start with the braised fennel, and if that goes well, then try this salad. Braised fennel is such a subtle, silky thing - very different from the crunch and strong anise flavor of the raw stuff. I think it's your best place to start. Good luck!

Too funny, maryeats! I know what you mean - it's scary how easy it is to forget which significant other you did what with. Yikes, dude.

Oh, Nikki, I hear you! In the first few months that Brandon and I were together, when I was telling someone about him, I occasionally slipped and referred to him by my previous boyfriend's name. You'd better believe I scrambled to fix that one. And yes, Julia Child! She was such a dear.

Lia, re: 100 questions. Just last night, Brandon and I were talking about the name "Sofia" (as in Sofia Coppola and the sparkling wine named in her honor), and he proceeded to tell me that he had a crush in the fifth grade on a girl named Sophia (or Sofia?), which of course led to 100 questions, the last of which went something like this:
Molly: What? Did you say she was PRETTY?!
Brandon: Yeah, she was cute. Oh, wait a minute. Let me try again. [Pause.] No, she was ugly?
Molly: Oh, good! That's what I thought you said.

We've really got it down to a science over here. Maybe you and Daniel should practice before you head to Brazil?

Merci, Bea! Mais toi - en enfer? Jamais!

Ooh, fennel in cioppino, Anonymous? That sounds wonderful!

Thank you, Acme Instant Food! And by god, it's high time for you to have some fennel! Hurry up!

Hello, dear Shari. I know - don't Asian pears sound good in here? Brandon and I need to restock our supply, so we can try it already! xo

Thank you, Helene. That makes me so happy.

AnnieKNodes, hmmm, I'm not sure about Fred's game either. It doesn't sound so, well, fun. Yikes!

You're welcome, Katie! That pumpkin cake sounds just killer - thank you for the tip! Pumpkin, spices, brown butter - yes, please.

Janice, great minds apparently do think alike: Brandon and I love putting radishes into this salad! I forgot to mention it here, but yes, it's really delicious.

Awww, Shelly, I too wish you had someone to share it with! But don't let that stop you, lady. Make a smaller batch, and have a solo feast! Yes?

1:29 PM, October 20, 2006  
Blogger Ales said...

There is nothing like the smell of raw mushrooms. In Italy we usually eat wild mushrooms (porcini)this way. But as they are quite pricey I will definetely try your version.

2:31 PM, October 22, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Oh no! Kay, I just realized that I never responded to your comment! Please forgive. And as for this bit about raciness, don't tell anyone, but our "game" occasionally pertains to things a little racier too...

And Ales, wow - a raw porcini would be incredible in this salad. But sadly, they're very hard to find around here. We get chanterelles, shiitakes, portabellos, criminis, morels, and even oyster and lobster mushrooms, but to get porcini, we almost always have to buy them dried...

7:18 PM, October 22, 2006  
Blogger cookiecrumb said...

OMG, you two are so in love, you're... *sticky*! :D
I adore your salad. I've been making a shaved raw mushroom salad for some time, but it needs other flavors, and. Well.
BTW, do you want any wild fennel seeds? I have a bagful of this fall's crop. E-mail me if you do, but no prob if you don't.

9:33 PM, October 23, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

You're too funny, cookiecrumb! "Sticky"? I might have to borrow that one of these days. And as for these fennel seeds, I'm e-mailing you right this minute...

10:50 PM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger pat barford said...

Too good Molly. It's the parmesean that makes it come to life. The combo of the fennel-y fennel, the lemon juice and cheese is to die for. It all just positively sings.

I love, love,love your blog. My web cookbook is rapidly expanding thanks to you. Everything I've tried has been a winner-and I've tried plenty. I'm positively vibrating with excitement with the thought of making your dried fruit & nut balls for Christmas. A friend said her English mother used to make them calling them sugarplums. At least I know now to get ready to make several batches,as my family will polish off at least one.

6:26 PM, October 26, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Pat, I'm so glad to hear that the salad was a success! It's so simple, but as you said - it really sings. And as for the fruit-and-nut balls, I'm right there with you! Just this morning I was starting to brainstorm a bit for Christmas, and they were the first thing on my mind...

11:27 AM, October 27, 2006  
Anonymous SaraB said...

This is SUCH an excellent site! I love reading and making your recipes. In fact, I love them so much that I'm finding that I make them even when I don't have all the proper ingredients at hand - like the time I made your bouchons au tuna and didn't have creme fraiche and used mayo instead - still delicious! Last night I didn't have fennel when I went to make this salad - instead I substituted a cucumber. Not the same as fennel, but still delicious! I thank you so much for such inspiration!

7:08 AM, November 14, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Aw, thank you, SaraB! I'm so glad that the bouchons and the fennel salad - even sans fennel! - were such hits in your kitchen. Cheers!

8:37 PM, November 14, 2006  
Blogger Gizzmit said...

Great site, with wonderfull recipes! Thank you!

1:32 AM, November 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Whipped this up for a potluck as well, a very warm bonfire one on Halloween. Didn't have mushrooms, or pears either, so I left them out. Still yummy! peace -- Lisa)

12:56 PM, December 20, 2006  
Anonymous Harald Walker said...

We replaced the Parmesan with Soy Cheese and were very pleased. It's a great salad.

12:28 PM, January 23, 2007  
Blogger Cheilita said...

i realize this post is from 2006 but i looked in the recipe index and it called me. I made it for lunch today and has totally turned the husband into a fennel fan. we used shitake mushrooms and threw in some herbs too. great recipe!

9:35 AM, September 02, 2008  
Anonymous Maija said...

After being prompted by your version of this in the book, I finally purchased fennel for the first time ever! I loved the freshness (lemon!) and saltiness and crispiness of this salad. I must confess it was only one extra-large serving for me.

Oh, and I wanted to confirm for anyone else wondering - a nice ripe Bartlett pear worked well, too, if Asian pears are not available.

11:33 AM, May 06, 2009  
Anonymous ann said...

Hi Molly,
This is one of your posts that I read when it originally appeared. I didn't make it at the time, but the idea stuck in my head. Really stuck... for three years. It's one of those recipes that my little brain couldn't make sense of. I think it's the rawness of the whole thing. I love shaved fennel, yes, and sliced mushrooms. But... It just didn't sound cohesive. Too much sharpness. Too cold. I don't know...

But you, Molly, have a perfect knack for curating recipes, so I have this trust in your suggestions. And FINALLY, this week, I made this salad exactly as you described. Not just once, but three times in a single week. I'm in love. I wouldn't change a thing. And it just doesn't surprise me.

8:26 AM, October 29, 2009  
Blogger Debjani said...

Hi Molly, I guess it´s time I left my thanks. I´ve been making this for years now, I love it, my friends love it. In fact I´m on to my second mandolin now. So THANK YOU!


ps. I add lemon zest and truffle oil to the dressing

7:01 AM, January 18, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I make this all the time and use the 2 mm blade in my Cuisinart food processor. I can literally make it in 2 minutes, and it's marvelous.

11:52 PM, September 07, 2012  

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