Fennel Fronds and Fresh Asparagus This Week at the Boulder Farmers' Market

There's nothing like the feeling of driving home with rock music blasting and the car trunk full of delicious things to eat. That’s how I returned from the Boulder County Farmers’ Market — the second of the year — on Saturday, with a bunch of slim carrots from Plowshare Farms (overwintered); a bag of lettuce leaves — heads, even little ones, won’t be around for a while (Oxford Gardens); salmon (Wild Alaskan); a bunch of fennel fronds from Black Cat; a new kind of bread that Izzio (formerly Udi’s) is pioneering, part whole wheat but light and crusty; eggs (Jodar); bok choy (Aspen Moon, which also had horseradish and organic biodynamically grown popcorn); a pint of Fior Di Latte’s Mexican coffee gelato; five empanadas from Rincon Argentino (new at the market this year; I wanted to try every flavor of the delicious flaky pastries); spinach (Red Wagon); and three bunches of asparagus (Miller Farms), because the asparagus season lasts only around five weeks, and after that you have to make do with flavorless frozen or imported spears from the supermarket. The market is open every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. through November 21 and on Wednesdays afternoons beginning May 6.

I have no idea how I’m going to use all those vegetables; I’m guessing a chunky green soup is in my future. I’m not vegan, vegetarian, paleolithic or anything-intolerant, but I am strongly aware of the effect of the food I eat on my health — both mental and physical — and I do feel unusually happy, creative and energetic in spring. Produce from the market has to be a big part of this. The stuff coruscates with energy. It glistens and seduces. I have friends who don’t like vegetables, and I understand some of the reasons. Too many adults have ugly memories of being forced to sit at the table after dinner as kids, hour after miserable hour, staring at a plate of unfinished, cold and congealing food while everyone else has gone off to play. Some even had to face the disgusting remains at breakfast the next morning. These reports infuriate me: It’s a travesty to use food as punishment. And I sometimes hear even wonderful, empathetic parents promising their children that if they take just one more bite of something green, they’ll get dessert — thus imprinting the idea that eating vegetables is an unpleasant chore.

Then there’s good old American puritanism: Everyone’s dieting, and everyone equates dieting with deprivation. Of course a pallid mound of steamed vegetables prepared without salt, oil or butter is unappetizing. But think of the ways people in other countries treat greens — France, India, Italy, Vietnam, the Middle East, Africa, wherever people love to eat and where cooks add cream, butter, olive oil, salt, garlic and onions, lemon juice or balsamic vinegar, a touch of sugar, coconut oil, herbs, roots, spice mixes, nuts, soy sauce or a little meat to vegetables for flavor. These are dishes everyone likes to eat.
Once home, I contemplate the fennel. For some reason, I never use fennel, though I always intend to. I know you can roast the bulbs, slice them for salads, saute with aromatics as the basis for a soup or stew; you can use those delicate fronds as a garnish, like dill. Fennel adds a slight licorice flavor to dishes, and tastes particularly good with fish. I imagine it would be nice with oranges too in, say, an orange and avocado salad with a lemony dressing. What I have from the market are little new fronds, the ends thickened, flavorful and delicately succulent. I decide to try them with salmon. Here’s the dish I came up with.

Ingredients (All measurements are approximate. Taste as you go):
Salmon filet, about a pound for two people
A couple of tablespoons butter
A tablespoon olive oil
Two shallots, sliced thin
Two garlic cloves, chopped
Half cup white wine
Three quarters cup water or chicken stock
A lemon, cut in half
Half bunch chopped fennel stalks and fronds
Another tablespoon or two of cold butter to finish

Season the salmon with salt and pepper. Pull out pin bones with pliers if necessary (though I never find bones in the fish from Wild Alaskan). Heat the butter and oil in a saute pan. When this is good and hot, add the salmon, skin side down. Let it saute for three or four minutes, turn, and cook the other side for perhaps five minutes. If the filet is thin, it may be done at this point and you can take it out and set it aside. If it isn’t cooked through, place it in a 350 oven until it is—which may take seven minutes or seventeen, depending on thickness. The only way to be sure is to check, either using a thermometer (the temperature should be close to 145 degrees fahrenheit) or cutting into the flesh with a thin knife. You might leave the fish a touch undercooked because it’ll cook more when you warm it in the finished sauce, and overcooked salmon is a travesty. If you don’t lke the skin, you can peel it off easily at this point.

Check the salmon for seasoning.

Saute the shallots in the pan for a couple of minutes. Not too hot, you want them to become translucent, not brown. Add the garlic for another minute.

Deglaze with white wine, and cook till the wine is half evaporated. Add water or stock; cook that down for three or four minutes — to about half a cup. Squeeze in some lemon juice. I used a whole lemon because it was very small; half may be enough. The only way to know is to taste.

Stir in the fennel fronds and let them cook until slightly wilted; the stems will still be bitey and succulent. Take the saute pan off the heat and stir in the cold butter. This is called monter au beurre, and it adds a lovely, melting unctuousness and a bit of gloss. Put the cooked salmon back in the pan and warm it up gently in the sauce.

I served this dish with rice and roasted asparagus.

Speaking of asparagus, last year I posted a couple of recipes, one for soup and another for a salad with hazelnuts and orange zest. 
Here’s another approach so quick and easy it has no right to be as delicious as it is. I got the idea from Niki Segnit’s inspirational book The Flavor Thesaurus. She recommends cooking a handful of slivered almonds in a melted knob of butter over lowish heat for six or seven minutes until golden, removing the pan from the heat, adding salt and lemon juice to taste, and pouring the mixture over cooked, seasoned asparagus spears. I took this one step further and used higher heat so that the butter browned along with the almonds, for a doubly nutty effect.

Browned butter, incidentally, is a miraculous, complex-tasting substance you can use for baking or for savory dishes. With lemon juice, salt and perhaps a bit of minced garlic, it’s a delectable quick sauce for fish and vegetables and a yummy dip for artichoke leaves. Here’s how it’s done: Melt the butter in a saucepan. Butter contains water and milk proteins; pretty soon the water will evaporate and the proteins start to cook. The butter will foam at this point. Stir. Now’s the time to watch closely: Those proteins can go from brown flecks to black and burned quickly. Because of this, you’ll want to keep the butter at a lowish, manageable heat the first couple of times you make browned butter. After that, you can turn up the heat and speed things up. When the concoction smells warm and nutty, has darkened just a very little and is filled with gold-brown flecks, take it off the heat. 

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman