Monday, October 8, 2012

Fennel and Apple Salad with Juniper

Oh, how I love this salad.  I love it so much that I wanted to record and share it, so much that I raced the dying-earlier light to photograph it.

And oh, how sorry I am that I had forgotten it for so long.  Again.

I first discovered it during culinary school.  A member of a final menu team for one of my classes, a far better traveled and dined woman than I, suggested it.  If I remember correctly, the recipe came from a New York restaurant's cookbook.  The name was perhaps Chanterelle, after the mushroom?  Hard to be sure since New York restaurants are alien to me.  It matters not.  I agreed to be the tester for the salad and proceeded to have one of those tiny but mind expanding taste experiences.

There are many fennel and apple salads, I'm sure.  The remarkable ingredient in this one is juniper berries.  Not your everyday ingredient in rural eastern Kentucky. Those had to be purchased in the city, and were also alien to me.  I wasn't sure what to expect, but I'm always ready to be surprised by the grace note that takes a dish from expectedly good to minorly life changing.

First of all, the fennel and apple are perfectly harmonious.  The textures are both crisp, but in subtly different ways.  The flavors are as highly complementary as a soprano-alto duet singing neighborly notes, with the sweetness of the apple taming the licorice flavor of the fennel, and the licorice flavor of the fennel grounding the sweetness of the apple. Those two ingredients are the entire body of the salad, but they're enough because they're so suave together.

The dressing is a simple mixture of lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Standard so far.  It gets more interesting with the addition of the juniper berries. They add a flavor that I can only describe as eating fresh air, as if the crisp piney scent of a woodland walk had become a flavor. Refreshing to say the least.  Mind expanding to a woman who didn't know that either juniper berries or such an aroma could be eaten, for pity's sake!

I have adapted things occasionally. I think the fancy Chanterelle chef used a green skinned apple.  I happen to like the tiny slices of color provided by whatever red skinned apple I have around.  I have even added grated or julienned carrot to the mix. Yep, still good. And perfect for this time of year when a little crisp is in the air occasionally, too, and the produce involved are in season.

Truth be told, I could be as out of physical touch as most Americans with what foods occur when in nature.  Seasonality is something I know about empirically, from a distance.  I don't have to live with it or by it.  Choosing produce that I know to be in season, even if the evidence isn't overflowing at my local supermarket, lets me at least approximate seasonality.  So maybe it's appropriate that I re-discover this salad only every fall, in it's own time.  Absence makes the palate more grateful. One less reason in life to feel guilty. I can now enjoy our reunion and anticipate another next year.

This salad is also my favorite kind of dish, one with a simple but elegant idea, comprised of basic ingredients with a remarkable fillip, no recipe required really, effortlessly impressive.  

My internet search didn't turn up the Chanterelle version of the salad that I remember, but a version by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten will do nicely.  I certainly agree with him on one point.  Having tried slicing the apple and fennel with just my knife, a mandoline is definitely the tool for the job. Now you can add two things to your repertoire.

Fennel and Apple Salad with Juniper Berries
Adapted from Jean-Georges Vongerichten
Serves 2-4

1 fennel bulb (about 12 ounces)

1 large apple
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
15 juniper berries

Trim the fennel, but keep some of the top feathery fronds for garnish. Cut the apple into quarters and core it (do not peel).

Cut the fennel against the grain as thinly as you can, preferably on a mandoline. Cut the apple as well into the thinnest possible slices. Toss the fennel and apple together with the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper.
Crush the juniper berries with the side of a knife and then mince. Stir them into the salad, toss, and let sit for 5 minutes before serving. 
This recipe keeps well for up to a day; refrigerate in a covered container and bring to room temperature before garnishing and serving.
Just before serving, garnish with the minced feathery fennel tops.