Orange & Fennel Salad with Mint
I haven't had the opportunity to travel to Sicily yet, but when I do, this salad will certainly be on my hit list of dishes to devour. Growing up in southern California, you see this dish from time to time since citrus grows so well in our parts. But its real origin is a classic melange of mediterranean flavors meeting in a bowl and creating "food love." The ingredients go together like two spoons laying in a drawer next to each other. It's effortless...
Orange & Fennel Salad with Mint
2 oranges 540 g total (once segmented about 140 g per orange including the squeezed out juice)
100 g very thinly sliced raw fennel (about half of a bulb)
20 ml good quality olive oil (about 2 T)
2 t good quality balsamic vinegar (aged if possible). It should have a thickness to it that regular store bought young balsamic doesn't usually have.
10 g fresh mint (basil is also a great substitute. I usually make this with basil but had none on the day of cooking and the plant in my yard was bare)
fresh cracked pepper
2 good pinches maldon salt
First and foremost we have to discuss segmenting citrus. This is a necessary step because it cuts the orange in a way that leaves the chewy fibrous parts of the orange in the compost bin and the yummy part on your plate. To segment, you must begin by setting the orange on the cutting board with the two "dotted" ends (the naval and the part that attached to the tree) on either side of the orange but not touching the cutting board itself. Then, you slice off about 1/2-1 centimeter (1/4-1/2 of an inch) on both "dotted" ends. This allows you to see the orange fruit inside. If you still see white after cutting, cut some more off. The idea here is to cut all of the peel and all of the pith (the white, bitter layer under the peel of citrus) off. Next, set one of the cut sides down flat on the cutting board and from the opening on the top, cut down, removing the peel and the pith as best as possible with a very sharp knife. If this proves difficult it could be that your knife is dull. Once all of that is gone, you can see very clearly the lines inside of the fruit. You want to hold the orange in your hand now in order cut the segments out. Do this over the mixing bowl so all of the juice drips down below. To segment: cut on the right side of any of the white lines. Cut through only till the middle, trying to avoid touching the white line completely. Then cut again, directly in front of the next line, again to the middle. This has freed the segment on both sides and it should be easy to help it fall out by gently pushing it into the bowl, thus removing only the fruit and none of the connecting fibers. Now you have an empty "flap" from the white part. Turn the orange and continue... Once the whole orange is segmented, squeeze as much juice as you can from the rest into the bowl. That is the main ingredient in your salad dressing. Don't be discouraged if it's tricky! It was tricky for all of us professional chefs once too...
To very thinly slice the fennel, first cut the bottom of the bulb off, creating a flat surface to set it upright on. Then cut the bulb in half lengthwise, right down the middle, cutting through each one of the cylindrical "pipes" sticking up from the top. This will expose the "heart" of the fennel. Try to cut it out carefully, leaving only the "leaves" that fold around each other. Separate those leaves one layer at a time and set them (one at a time for starters) like a rainbow on the cutting board. Then very carefully, slice them paper thin (or use a mandoline). Add to the bowl with the orange segments. To slice the mint, lay all of the leaves on top of each other and cut through them all at the same time - paper thin slices is best. Add half of the mint to the bowl.
Lastly, add the olive oil, salt and pepper. Mix this around well. If you want the fennel to break down little bit, you can leave it in there for anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours. The acids will soften the fennel and take away a bit of it's intense anise-like flavors that some people dislike. If you and your guests are not one of them, get ready to plate.
In each bowl, first, add one teaspoon of the balsamic vinegar. Spread it around just a little bit with the back of the spoon. Then, gently scoop the salad ingredients and dressing on top, one scoop at a time. Any leftover dressing should be poured evenly between the two plates. Sprinkle with the rest of the mint and devour it with a nice German Rielsing or a Sancerre from France! Bon appétit!