By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Autumn's delectable combinations

Fennel is an unusual vegetable these days but a delicious addition to the root vegetable basket, with its mild anise flavor and celery-onion-cross texture. It is in season in fall and winter.

The feathery fronds and crisp bulbs can be minced and added to green salads. Both are featured in one of my favorite fall/winter dishes: grapefruit, fennel and avocado salad. Made with lettuce or fresh spinach and tossed with a mild grapefruit vinaigrette, it’s wonderfully crisp and refreshing.

Sliced fennel bulbs also may be added to raw vegetable trays, sautéed or roasted, grilled, put into soup or even pickled.

Carrot fennel soup appears to be a classic, often pureed, and is in season just at the moment. Carrot ginger soup is another classic pairing.

Root vegetables in general are a sweet bunch, which can be a little disconcerting. Winter squashes also tend to be sweet, setting the tone for the cold season’s meals. Some people offset that with bitter greens, finding the contrast pleasant, or use other foils. In the popular Italian butternut squash soup, parmesan cheese contrasts perfectly with the sweet squash to create a perfect combination.

Sour dried cranberries or ripe quinces go beautifully with roasted vegetables; roast the quince along with the vegetables. Walnuts are especially nice with cranberries; the walnuts add some crunch to the soft vegetables, and a slightly bitter edge; the cranberries add acidity and brightness.

They also work well with individual vegetables. Try them, for example, with roasted brussels sprouts or cabbage.

Cole vegetables in general can help to round out the vegetable scene, especially since they’re less sweet, and staying with the soup theme, cauliflower makes a lovely one. My favorite recipe involves onions, cauliflower and potatoes, sauteed and pureed, with toasted almonds sprinkled on top. Cream is optional. My mother makes a pureed soup of cauliflower and carrots with cinnamon sprinkled on top that my dad raves about.

Green salads may include lettuce, spinach or cabbage, or combinations of the three. With no tomatoes to add, winter produce can be called on to provide brightness and acidity; raw or pickled grated beets, pickled green beans, dried cranberries and citrus fruits are all possibilities, although perhaps not in the same salad.

In the grapefruit, fennel and avocado salad, the fennel provides crunch and sweetness, the grapefruit acidity and juiciness, and the mild, creamy avocado marries them perfectly, its fat content providing some welcome substance. A little grated fresh ginger in the dressing adds a subtle kick — or possibly an unsubtle one, depending on your preference.

Nicole Montesano can be reached at

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