Every now and then, Brandon and I like to play a special game. It has no real name, but if I were to give it one, it might be called the “Your Partner Has No Past” game. It goes like this: whenever one of us mentions a previous boyfriend or girlfriend, the other feigns deafness, dumbness, or outright incomprehension. For example:

Molly: “Oooh! I love this song! Turn it up! [Ex-boyfriend] put it on a mix tape for me when we first met.”

Brandon: “What? Who did? You mean I did? I did, right?”

It’s not so much that we dislike knowing about each other’s previous significant others — because in fact, I take a sort of perverse interest in the topic. No, it’s just that it’s so fun to pretend that your partner came out of the ether, fully and perfectly formed. You know — the way that Athena sprung from Zeus’s head? It makes us both look terribly talented and precocious, like minor geniuses in the romance department. To wit:

Brandon: “Oh baby, you’re such a good kisser. It’s really amazing, since I was your first kiss and everything. Riiiiight?”

Molly: “Of course! [Wink, wink.] And you, mon cheri, are so good at hugging! It’s really amazing how good you are, especially since I’m the first person you’ve ever hugged. Riiiiight?”

As you can see, our game is really quite fun. You should try it — so long as both players are in on the plan, of course. Otherwise, it could get messy.

But all that said — sex, lies, and special games — I have to admit that I am actually quite grateful for Brandon’s ex-girlfriends, and one of them in particular. Without Gillian’s wise tutelage, he would be, he tells me, “a terrible hippie.” He would also douse all edibles with inedible — for most people — amounts of vinegar. And he might never have done any homework, or made it through college. Clearly, I owe the woman quite a lot. But more than anything else, I owe her — or, technically, her parents — a big one for teaching Brandon about shaved fennel salads.

Apparently, Gillian’s parents once owned a CD-ROM of Julia Child’s series Cooking with Master Chefs. In one of the episodes, Alice Waters, Patron Saint of All Things Fresh, teaches Julia how to make a shaved fennel, mushroom, and Parmesan salad. Gillian’s parents were quite taken with the idea, and it quickly became a regular in their repertoire. Brandon tasted it for the first time in their home, and now, one breakup and a few years later, it is a regular in ours. To Gillian’s parents, I say: things may not have turned out as you imagined, but inadvertently, you sure did a good thing for me and my man. Thank you.

This salad is a wonderful cool-weather standby: crisp, fragrant, a little cheer for the jaw. Now that the soft, baby lettuces of summer are gone, it’s time for fall’s sweet fennel and earthy mushrooms. Shaved paper-thin and layered on a platter, drizzled with olive oil and fresh lemon juice, this is what salad looks like when it wears its winter whites — or, rather, pale greens and browns. Finished with curls of sweet, fruity Parmigiano Reggiano, it makes a lovely Sunday lunch for two, with a hunk of baguette, a pat of butter, and a piece of fruit for dessert. If you’re anything like us, it might even inspire a special game — something involving forks, stealth, and the last bite of salad.

Shaved Fennel Salad with Mushrooms and Parmesan
Adapted from Alice Waters and Julia Child

Part of what makes this salad feel special is its elegant, layered presentation. But if you’re short on time — or just don’t feel like fussing — you can certainly toss it in a bowl like any other salad. As for variations, you can try adding a dash of truffle oil for some sophistication and snazz, or, if you’re feeling frisky, try replacing the mushrooms with paper-thin slices of Asian pear. We thought of that a couple of days ago, when we shared an Asian pear after big plates of this salad. The mingling of flavors was fantastic. Needless to say, it’s next on our list.

1 medium fennel bulb, about 10-12 ounces
5 or 6 small mushrooms, preferably crimini or white button
Good-quality olive oil
A lemon
Sea salt, such as Maldon
A hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Freshly ground black pepper

First, prepare the fennel. If it still has its feathery fronds, cut them off at the base of their stalks, and discard them. Rinse the bulb under cool water, and dry it thoroughly. Using a vegetable peeler or paring knife, trim away any bruises or brown spots on the very outermost “skin” of the fennel. Cut the bulb in half from root to stalk, and trim the root end. Using a sharp knife or a mandoline, slice the fennel as thinly you possibly can.

Now, prepare the mushrooms. Wipe away any dirt on their surface with a damp paper towel, and trim off and discard the stem end. Using a sharp knife or a mandoline, slice the mushrooms very thinly.

Assemble the salad in layers on a large platter or, if you prefer, on individual plates. First, make a layer of fennel slices. Drizzle lightly with olive oil. Then place a layer of mushrooms on top of the fennel. Drizzle lightly with lemon juice, and season with salt. Using a vegetable peeler, cut thin shavings of the cheese, and arrange them on top of the mushrooms. Add another layer of fennel, followed by a light drizzle of oil, and then another layer of mushrooms, lemon juice, salt, and cheese. Repeat until you run out of fennel and mushrooms; you might have two layers of each, or you might have more; it doesn’t much matter. Finish the salad with a good drizzle of lemon juice and a hearty splash of oil, and garnish with a few shavings of cheese. Serve immediately, with salt and pepper to taste.

Yield: 2 quite generous servings, or 4 side servings