This salad is a miracle for me. If you had told me just last year that I would be eating raw celery root and fennel, I would have laughed (and then possibly vomited). There are really only two foods in this world that I ever say that I strongly dislike: fennel and, even more so, celery.
My aversion to celery goes all the way back to kindergarten, where I would get in trouble on a daily basis for scooping the peanut butter and raisins out of my ants on a log, leaving the gutted celery sticks behind. (In retrospect, I wonder why my teacher didn’t stop giving me this snack when it was very clear that I hated celery and nothing was going to make me eat it.) My distaste for fennel developed recently, but that’s because I never ate it until a few years ago. I’m not a fan of anise/licorice flavors in general and huge fennel bulbs taste really strongly of that flavor and I just can’t stomach it.
The first was a revelation about celery that happened just a few months ago. I was dining at one of my favorite restaurants and one of the appetizers on the menu was a celery salad. I ignored it but my plan failed because after we polished off our first appetizer, the owner brought over the celery salad, as it was relatively new on the menu and she wanted us to try it out. I was slightly horrified because there was no way I could get around not eating this salad. I mean, it's not like there was anything in it I couldn't eat (i.e., animals), but I had such a deep-seeded hatred of celery that there was no way I was going to put that in my mouth. How could celery be good? Ugh. However, given that my formerly mushroom-hating husband had just devoured a block of mushroom pate and grilled portobellos, I decided that perhaps this plate full of celery might be tolerable, so I took a bite.
Well, I was wrong. It was freaking awesome. The celery in the salad wasn't your supermarket variety that's stringy and acerbic, it was fresh Chinese celery that was thinly shaved and was accompanied by grilled mushrooms (oh my god, our two hated foods in one dish!), greens, grapes, and fried cheese curds coated in celery seed. It was amazing. Probably my favorite salad in the universe and I actually wish I was eating it right now.
And that is how I learned to stop hating celery. A few weeks later we got Chinese celery in our CSA share and I most certainly used it in a stir fry with tofu - it was awesome. And even more astounding was the diminutive celery root we got a few weeks after that - nothing like the mammoth celeriacs even at Whole Foods. These guys were tender and mild and, dare I say, delicious. Lesson: farm-fresh produce is way better than its evil supermarket variety siblings.
Next up: fennel. Similar story here. I've never liked fennel. The seeds are often used in Indian cooking and I would regularly pick them out when my mom used them, but that was mostly futile because the flavor had already permeated the whole dish. Twizzlers and Good & Plentys were always the first to be traded out of my Halloween stash. As I got older, Sambuca was totally out of the question (although there's the infamous incident of when I drank an entire bottle of raki in Istanbul, but let's save that for a later date, perhaps over a drink). And bulbs of fennel? The worst offender of them all.
But as I learned with the celery, farm-fresh fennel is worlds apart from the supermarket variety. The bunch of fennel I received with my CSA share was comprised of 5 young bulbs and stalks, the bulbs no more than an inch in circumference and the stalks tender and fragrant. They were astouding - a light, delicate fennel flavor and an impossibly delicate crispy texture that I never knew fennel could possess. I was accustomed to overgrown, tough, heady bulbs, but these were a revelation. So now fennel is crossed off my list of foods I hate. Although I suppose there should be asterisks on that list because I will still never touch a piece of supermarket celery.
Anyhow, this salad came to life at the last minute on Thanksgiving. I had prepared in advance and brought down a whole feast to my brother's place in DC as he and his wife had just had a baby (she's the cutest girl in the universe and don't even think about arguing with me about this!). Since we were going to be there a few days, I brought some random produce that was in our fridge with the hopes of making something with it over the course of the weekend. But as I was putting together our dinner, I realized we really needed another fresh vegetable dish in addition to a raw kale salad, so I chopped up an apple and sliced up a few fennel bulbs and stalks and tossed it all with some apple cider vinegar and olive oil and a bit of salt and pepper. Incredibly simple, but it turned out to be one of the best-liked dishes on the table.
So when we got back to Brooklyn, where more fennel was awaiting us in the fridge, as was about 8 pounds of apples, I decided to recreate this salad and to add the stray celery root in the crisper drawer. I think it was even better than the one we had on Thanksgiving - the earthiness of the celery root was an excellent foil for the sweet and light flavors of the apple and fennel.
Celery and fennel in one dish? Last year I would have laughed, but today, I'm telling you it's amazing. So go ahead and try a food you thought you hated. You just might be surprised at how good it can be.
Celery Root, Fennel, and Apple Salad
vegan and gluten-free
4 small or 1 large fennel bulbs and stalks
1 small celery root (about 4 ounces)
1 medium size tart apple (about 8 ounces)
3 tablespoons high quality extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
¼ teaspoon sea salt plus more to taste
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Trim the base off the fennel bulb(s). If using a large bulb, cut the stalks off and cut the bulb into quarters, then thinly slice the bulb and the stalk and fronds. If using small bulbs, leave them intact and thinly slice the whole thing. Transfer everything to a large bowl.
Peel the celery root and core the apple. Cut both into 1/8” matchsticks about 1 1/2" long and transfer to the bowl. (Tip: cut the celery root first so that the apple spends the least time exposed to the air and therefore browns as little as possible).
Add the apple cider vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper and toss gently to combine. Add more salt and pepper if necessary. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving to let the flavors combine.