Hello, Sunshine!

Spring is in the air. Can you feel it? The explosion of blooming color, the emerald hues of bright, lush grass, the musical symphony of returning birds as they construct their nested homes for the upcoming summer. The way your skin feels warm and renewed by the sun. Magical.

I love this time of year. One of the things I love about living in Illinois is the seasons. Winter is a bit of a bummer for most Chicagoans, but we take full advantage of warm weather the second it comes around. We're all dusting off our gardening tools, starting up our tractors and pulling out old recipes that contain fresh fruits and vegetables to ring in the season.

When winter finally surrenders to the sun's renewing glow, it's time to celebrate all things sunny. To me, there is no better way to celebrate the season than by using lemons. We are all aware that I am a fan of lemons (see my attempt at trying to grow a lemon tree), and they are usually one of the first things I pull out when I feel like it's time to enjoy something fresh and bright.

Today I decided to pull out a recipe that I used as part of my final exam for Mediterranean Cuisine class when I was in culinary school. It's a bright, clean and satisfyingly crunchy salad with lemon zest and juice as a tangy supporting role. 

Shaved Fennel Salad
1 medium to large bulb of fennel (with fronds)
1 lemon (try to pick one that is heavy for it's size, there's more juice that way)
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese (the real stuff whenever possible please)
2 tsp olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse the fennel in cold water and pat dry. Cut the top fronds off just above the bulb and set aside (we'll use the fronds later). Cut the bulb in half from top to bottom. Inside, you'll see a core right at the base. Use your knife to essentially cut an "A" to remove the core (see image on the left). 

Here's where you need some specialized equipment. I like my fennel to be nice and thin, so I use my mandolin slicer. You can also use a cutting disk from your food processor, or you can do it by hand if you are particularly good. If you're nervous about using a knife to cut super thin slices, don't worry about it. Just cut them as thin as you can. Once the fennel is shaved, add some ice to a bowl and add water. Then toss in the shaved fennel. The idea behind this is first to help remove that really intense fennel flavor (which tastes a lot like anise, or licorice), and second to make this fennel super duper crunchy. Let this sit for about five minutes, or as long as it takes you to do the next steps.

Use your lemon-zester and zest the entire lemon. Don't have one? Use a veggie peeler to remove just the outside zest and then chop super fine with your knife. Be patient, you want it pretty small. Or just go to the freakin' hardware store and get a zester, sheesh. Once the lemon is zested, cut the lemon in half and squeeze into a bowl over your other hand to be sure you catch any seeds. Take the fennel out of the water (discarding any ice that may linger) and give it a spin in a salad spinner. Don't have one (jeeze, what DO you have)? Set the fennel on some paper towels and let drain. Or put it on a kitchen towel, close it up and give it a spin. It's fun! It's not fun, though, really. Just get a salad spinner. Once the fennel is relatively dry, add it to a bowl. Then add the rest of your ingredients. Mix together, sprinkle in some torn fennel fronds and shave on that 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese.

Bright, clean, refreshing, crunchy. This salad has it all. It's definitely a winner winner chicken dinner. Some people like to add parsley to the salad, just to add a different layer of green. Your choice. It's a great side dish or salad for a picnic. It stays crunchy even for long events (no longer than 3-4 hours please, sanitation is important!) as long as you keep the serving bowl over some ice.

Celebrate the season, and enjoy this delicious taste of Spring!

(Thanks to greenlemonade.com for the fennel picture and sallypasleyvargas.com for the lemon bowl picture. Nice job! Grazie grazie!)


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