I fear that I’m guilty of making the same side salads over and over again. In the spring and summer, it’s the blueberry goat cheese salad. And in the fall…as soon as the temperatures drop to the point that I suddenly remember my oven goes above 350, I can’t help but glance over at this one wistfully. I think it’s because it’s rare to have a first course salad that feels like an indulgence. Too often it feels perfunctory — the required dose of leafy greens and vegetables (and, okay, hopefully croutons) before the real party starts with the main course.
Not this one, my friends. This one has spunk. Roasting thinly sliced fennel and bacon, coated in a mixture of olive oil and brown sugar, in a high oven until beautifully glazed and caramelized; and adding it to your leafy greens before tossing it in a maple-y, mustard-y vinaigrette? Yeah, unquestionably better.
Now I know that a lot of folks have some strong, rather negative feelings about fennel. I’m of the opinion that these people are wary of all anise-like things, and I agree that the flavor isn’t for everyone. Because, you know…licorice. I’ll have you know that I am, generally, one of these people. But I submit to you that fresh fennel bulb just isn’t like this. It doesn’t taste like fennel seed (which has a way more dried, concentrated anise flavor), it doesn’t taste like the fronds of the fennel (again, more intense), and it doesn’t taste like ouzo or anisette. It’s mild and crunchy and fresh tasting, with a texture that’s always felt to me like a marriage between onion and celery — and its flavor mellows out in the oven even further. Think of it as an onion with more personality, but retaining all the wonderful transformative properties once you apply some heat.
This recipe is one I’ve been tweaking for years — its genesis is an old Giada recipe, formulated for an episode of her show designed for bachelors. I’ve replaced the pancetta she used with good old bacon (mostly because I like the smoky flavor with the fennel) and developed a completely different dressing to capitalize on the fall-ish feeling of the flavors. Last, I’ve increased the roasting time by quite a bit (while pulling the mixture out every so often to stir and make sure everything browns evenly) in order to achieve that deep caramelization that makes this salad so memorable — no matter what you’re serving for the main event.
Fall Salad with Caramelized Bacon, Fennel with Maple-Mustard Vinaigrette
Adapted loosely from Giada DeLaurentiis
For the salad:
5 oz spring mix, washed and spun dry
I large (or 2 smaller) head of fennel, sliced thin
8 oz bacon, thick cut, diced
¼ cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil, or other neutral cooking oil, plus more for drizzling the pan
For the dressing:
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
2 tablespoons maple syrup
3 tablespoons fruity olive oil
Kosher salt and a few grinds of black pepper
Preheat oven to 400° F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and drizzle a little oil over the foil to prevent sticking, or spray with a non-stick cooking spray. Add the bacon and fennel to the sheet pan along with the rest of the oil and brown sugar. Toss well with your hands to make sure everything is evenly coated. Place the sheet pan in the oven and bake for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, take the sheet pan out and toss everything with a rubber spatula to make sure it browns evenly. Roast another 10 minutes, take out the pan and toss again. Repeat every 7-10 minutes until everything is caramelized with crispy edges and golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool completely before assembling the salad.
While the bacon and fennel are roasting, make the vinaigrette. In a medium-sized bowl or a blender, combine the balsamic, dijon, maple syrup, salt and pepper. Whisk or pulse to combine. While whisking constantly, or with the motor running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the dressing is emulsified. Taste the dressing when you’re done and season with salt and pepper as needed.
To assemble, toss the bacon and fennel mixture in a large bowl with the spring mix. Add the dressing and toss well to combine. You may not need all the dressing. Any leftover vinaigrette will keep in the fridge for 2 weeks.
Serves 4 as a first course or side dish