In Southern Ontario, we have been lucky enough to enjoy some unseasonably warm weather this spring. In fact, May has been downright summery so far, with most of us abandoning our jackets in favor of tees and tanks that let us soak up this precious bit of (very) early summer sun. There is a classic joke that Canadians only have two seasons (“Winter” and “Barbecue Season”, har har. Sigh), and certainly this year seems to be no exception as we went directly from parkas and woolies to patios and coolers in the space of mere days.
We try to do as much outdoor cooking as we can when the weather allows it, and lately I have become rather enamoured with grilled salads. Everything from a bitter grilled radicchio caesar to a warm eggplant salad dressed in smoky cumin and pomegranate vinaigrette, there is a lot more to “grilled vegetables” than just the traditional blend of zucchini, peppers and onion that we usually think of. On that note, if you haven’t had grilled fennel before, I urge you to give it a try. The sweet licorice flavour mellows and becomes somewhat more vegetal while the smoky char sets things right off.
This bright, flavorful and tangy grilled fennel “salad” is perfect for those first alfresco meals of summer. The ingredients are bold and very a la Grecque, with lemon, mint, oregano and spicy green olives, and would be just as happy beside grilled chicken souvlaki as the North African spiced fish that we paired it with last week.
Grilled Fennel with Chopped Olive and Fresh Herb Tapenade
Serves 4-6 as a light side
- 2 large bulbs fresh fennel *
- 4 tbsp olive oil, divided
- 1/4 cup spicy jumbo green olives, minced **
- 1 lemon (1/4 tsp lemon zest plus 2 tbsp juice)
- 1 large clove garlic
- small handful fresh mint (1 tbsp minced)
- small handful fresh oregano (1 tbsp minced)
- salt, to taste
* Our fennel bulbs have been getting bigger and bigger lately. If you have more reasonable or organically grown fennel (which has a stronger flavor, and therefore I only love it more!) you will want to use up to 4, depending on size.
** You can buy spicy green olives that are bathed in a spicy oil flecked richly with chili flakes. However, if you only have regular green olives on hand, feel free to use them and add up to 1/4 tsp red chili flakes, depending on your preference for heat. Please use good olives that you like to eat plain on the antipasto table, rather than the smaller pimento stuffed manzanilla olives in brine.
Cut the top fronds off the fennel and discard them or save for stock. Cut the fennel bulbs vertically in half. Cut each half again into thirds or quarters, depending on size. When you are cutting through, leave the base intact so that each wedge is connected at the bottom.
Drizzle the fennel wedges with 2 tbsp of olive oil and season lightly with salt.
To make the dressing, mash the garlic clove to a pulp or grate it on a microplane. Add the lemon zest and juice; whisk to combine.
Remove the pits from the olives (if applicable) and mince the flesh. Discard the stems from the herbs and coarsely chop the leaves.
Stir the olives and herbs into the lemony vinaigrette.
Grill the fennel over medium-high direct heat for 8-10 minutes, turning the wedges periodically, until they are tender and show some beautiful charring. Be careful when you are turning the wedges to ensure that they don’t fall apart.
Carefully toss the fennel salad with the olive mixture when they are still hot.
Serve the salad warm or at room temperature. I suppose that you could garnish with some toasted pine nuts as well, but let’s not get all fancy and convoluted over here.
Grilling adds a fabulous crispy frizzled texture to the exterior layers, with a nice smoky charred flavor that complements the fennel’s sweetness. I like eating grilled fennel just like that, with a sprinkle of salt and not much else. However, briny olives, bright lemon juice and the grassy fresh flavours of green herbs just make this such a perfect summery celebration dish for a picnic or meal.
For a light summer meal, this fennel salad pairs well with fish, roasted pork or grilled chicken. For us, grilled fennel, succulent arctic char rubbed lightly with ras el hanout and smoked paprika, and a green salad made for the perfect healthy dinner to enjoy as the temperature slowly dropped at night.