A bright blood orange, citrus and fennel winter salad

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Along with rhubarb, blood oranges provide us with a neon bright shot of fruit in the crepuscular months of winter, their orange flesh mottled and marbled with the darkest of ruby reds. Their exterior gives no clue to the tie dyed extravaganza going on within, being merely a slightly more intense shade of the orange peel we expect. The taste of the flesh inside though, is complex, overlaid with bright raspberry tones as if a bowl of raspberries had been drenched with an affogato of best quality orange juice. Neither is that glorious colour subdued by cooking.

The three varieties originate from Italy and Spain, Sanguinelli from the latter and Moro and Tarocco from Italy and come from trees with a tendency to be alternate bearing, meaning that one year the crop will be heavy with smaller fruit and the next year sees lighter fruit yields but bigger and heavier in flesh and juice. The Moro is the most berry like in flavour whilst the Tarocco has a slight Seville orange like spiced bitterness to it, a more adult flavour that marries beautifully with chocolate. They are still relatively unused in the UK although in the Mediterranean region almost a third of the oranges consumed are blood oranges. Fruit carts in local markets are piled high, some of the fruit cut in half to show their brilliant hue and provide assurances to the shoppers. Small glasses of juice are ordered and drunk appreciatively, chased down by an expresso. The Sicilians serve a breakfast brioche stuffed with blood orange gelato and granita, there are cakes made with polenta, suffused with a syrup made from their juices and a spectacular duck a la orange can be produced using them instead of navel oranges.

In England we are seeing our traditional lemon curd and marmalades remade with blood oranges and preserves company Scarlet & Mustard sell them in season. Alongside being stocked in stores nationally, they often take a stall at our local farmers markets and these brim over with pyramids of stout little jars full of fruit curds and tall bottles of salad dressings, both made with orange all year round and blood oranges when in season. Take the lid off the curd and within seconds, enjoy its sharp, blowsy scent which compliments rather than competes with other festive foods- thankfully the aromas of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and rich dried fruit plus the low and slow game stews which tend to dominate a kitchen in December and January are the natural bedfellow to the orange.

For this salad I have used the Moro and you will need to use a mandolin or very sharp knife to cut the fennel as thinly as possible. The citrus will collapse if you try to slice it with the mandolin so use a knife instead. I would serve this salad with its natural bed fellow, thin bloodied and rare slices of beef although it stands happily alone, served with decent bread. A handful of fleshy and ferrous olives or a smear of tapenade on your bread wouldn’t taste amiss either and I think duck would work too. Visually it is a feast of Klimt like jewel coloured circles, almost too pretty to eat.

Blood orange & fennel salad

1 thinly sliced bulb of fennel- it must be super fresh as this salad is all about the crunch

1/2 of a red onion, sliced thinly (and I have made this with a banana shallot too)

2 blood oranges, seeds, peel & pith removed, thinly sliced

2 lemons (get Meyer from Tescos or a good local store if you can), remove seeds, peel & pith, slice thinly.

1 tbsp lemon juice (meyer or standard lemon)

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (choose one that is not too grassy or peppery as its too heavy) or go for a rapeseed if you want a more neutral carrier

salt & pepper

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Toss the slices of onion, the fennel, the lemon in the lemon juice and add salt and pepper to season. Then add the olive oil. Add the blood orange slices last of all and carefully (and lightly) mix them in so they don’t bleed all over the rest of the salad. Eat, preferably with some rare beef or duck.

Serve.

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