Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Late Winter Sicilian Salad

There’s something to what is said about Sicily being an otherworldly place. But while geography, politics and poverty have each made tangible contributions to its historic—and in some sense—continuing isolation, the essential strangeness of the place is at once ephemeral and difficult to deny.

In my visit there, I discovered a place where the trains wait for nuns, where one encounters a man selling eels out of the trunk of his car on a rainy Friday evening, where an entire town takes the statue of the local saint out for a parade on her birthday, where the local coffee tastes like it could blow a hole in the top of your head, and the grappa even more so. Palermo is dotted with crumbling, scaffolding-shrouded neo-Byzantine marvels which some EU bureaucrat no doubt intended to have renovated. A Norman-era church stands in the suburbs, while the Vucciera market could, with the exception of the arancini, fried risotto balls, be mistaken for one in the Middle East. And that’s not even mentioning the Roman ruins, which stand unperturbed in the unlikeliest—and occasionally the loveliest—of spots.

I travelled to Sicily too early in my eating career to fully plumb its depths. My itinerary was dominated by relics, not restaurants. But even so, the characteristically strong flavours of the island’s food—the chili heat, the briny salinity of anchovies, the sweet-sour interplay of fruit and vinegar (as in the raisin-studded caponata) and the intense sweetness of most pastries –could not be backdrop alone. In the first few days I made my peace with olives, capers and sardines; by my return to England, I was collecting recipes for what would become a kitchen staple—puttanesca sauce.

With citrus, there were no such qualms to be overcome. It was December, prime season, and everything was ubiquitous and delicious. On our picnics, I learned the technique of removing pith and skin in one neat spiral (though nearly 10 years on, I am yet to master it entirely). I even picked a contraband lemon at an archaeological site. But the easy winner was the blood orange, which, like the gorgeous 5’10 blond who turns out to be a Harvard astrophysicist, could boast more than just looks.

I’m not sure that I ever encountered this salad on my trip, nor that I would have eaten it if I had, as my reconciliation with the liquorice family was still several years off. It’s a remarkable versatile player, pairing well with everything from oily fish to grilled lamb to red-sauced pasta or pizza. And in this strange nether season, it’s a refreshing and strikingly attractive addition to the table. For those who can’t abide raw fennel, endive could be substituted. In fact, I often use both.

Late Winter Sicilian Salad
Serves 2; can easily be doubled or tripled
Preparation time: 20 minutes (for appearance’s sake, wait until the last minute for the oranges, olives and mint; the fennel and endive can be cut up to an hour before eating)

3 medium-sized blood oranges (substitute navels or another flavourful variety if blood oranges are unavailable)
1 large or 2 small heads of fennel
1 small handful unpitted black olives (I prefer unbrined varieties such as Nicoise or Kalamata; oil-cured olives can overwhelm the other flavours)
1 endive (optional)
A few tablespoons of fresh mint or basil
Good quality olive oil
½ or whole lemon
Salt and pepper.

Cut the fennel and endive into very thin matchstick strips and place on a serving plate. Peel oranges, being careful to remove all pith, and cut into circular slices. (If you cut over the plate, you’ll be able to use some of the juices, but you’ll risk destroying the pristine whiteness of the salad’s bottom layer.) Arrange the orange slices over the fennel and endive. Pit olives and depending on size, cut in half; add these on top of the orange, along with the mint or basil. To dress, sprinkle the salad lightly with oil and even more lightly with lemon. Finish with salt and pepper, being sure to taste one of the olives before salting.

1 comment:

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