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Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: A classic Sicilian winter salad -- and the star of your next dinner party.
This traditional Sicilian salad changes from household to household. In its most basic version, it consists simply of blood oranges, sliced and seasoned with a good pinch of sea salt and extra virgin olive oil. More elaborate versions include one or more of the following: green or black olives, anchovies, fresh chilli, sliced green onion, even smoked fish. This is somewhere in between -- thinly sliced fennel with its tops add crisp freshness, and the olives add pops of saltiness to the sweet oranges. It's a wonderful palate cleanser to pair with heavier, heartier winter dishes, like a roast -- or to serve in between courses.
A recipe as simple as this one requires very little time to prepare; you only need to pay a bit of attention to the ingredients.
The oranges, with that tell-tale blood-hued pulp, are the real heroes of this dish -- so they should be perfectly ripe, sweet, and heavy in your hand. Perhaps even a bit squidgy. And if they're in season, they will be all those things. Cut away the skin, then, with bright pink juice running everywhere, carefully cut out small segments.
Now, for the fennel. It should be crisp, bright, and perky, with a tuft of soft, feathery fronds. You'll use those as garnish. Choose fat, round fennel rather than the slender ones -- the former are male, the latter are female. The difference? The male bulbs are tastier, sweeter, less fibrous. I'll never forget a winter's morning I spent at a market in Florence, when a lovely old nonna stopped me in my tracks to tell me about the gender of fennel.
In terms of olives, you can use whatever you like as long as they are good -- really good -- olives. None of those bland, out of a tin things. Deseed or leave the seeds in, as you like. If you can, make or can get your hands on oven-baked olives -- inky black with shrivelled, leathery skin and a deep, intense flavour, these are excellent in this salad.
Herbs could go well here too; try fresh rosemary, the leaves picked and scattered, or fennel seeds to enhance that aniseed flavour of the fennel bulbs. Sliced almonds or pistachio nuts could add texture. If you like the sweetness, some raisins, soaked until plump combined with lightly toasted pine nuts wouldn't go amiss. The options are plentiful. But keep in mind that the beauty of this dish is in its simplicity and the harmony of flavours – choose well and keep it to a handful of ingredients.
2 fennel bulbs, sliced finely
2 blood oranges, peeled and sliced, reserving half an orange for juice
A handful of good quality olives, green or black
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
A pinch of sea salt
Photos by Emiko Davies