I’ll be honest…winter in Sicily is not my favorite time of year. The vines in the vineyards are totally bare, my vegetable garden is empty (except for the weeds that have grown up), and worst of all, the weather is completely unpredictable. While the temperatures don’t really get too awfully cold, the sun spends more time tucked away into the clouds, and the rain and winds take over. Most of the time when there’s rain in the forecast, strong winds also accompany it. Umbrellas are rendered almost completely useless in weather like this. Either the wind whips your umbrella completely inside out and you get soaked, or the rain blows sideways, so every part of your body that the umbrella doesn’t actually cover gets completely drenched. Either way, you come home looking like a wet dog. Needless to say, I spend a lot more time at home during the winter months.
There is, however, one bright spot in the dreary winter days that I look forward to every year. SICILIAN CITRUS!!! Around mid-December, the trees finally begin to show hints of color other than green. By January, they are completely dotted with yellow and orange! Mandarins, tangerines, lemons, and navel oranges abound! The most prized, however, and one of my favorites, are the Sicilian Blood Oranges.
Blood oranges get their vibrant red color from the presence of anthocyanin, a pigment present in flowers and fruit, but not usually found in citrus fruits. Sicilian Blood Oranges are prized throughout Italy and Europe, and with good reason. While blood oranges are grown in other parts of the world, including Spain, Australia, and the states of California, Texas, and Florida in the U.S., the flavor of the Sicilian Blood Orange is far superior to any other type that I’ve tasted. Its tangy-sweet flesh is incredibly good for you, too. Just one medium-sized blood orange contains 15% of the FDA’s recommended daily amount of potassium, and 28% of the recommended daily amount of dietary fiber.
There are three different varieties of blood oranges:
Sanguinello – classified as a “full-blood” orange. The Sanginello has characteristics similar to the Moro, but with an extended growing season. The first mature fruit appears in February, but can remain unharvested on the trees until April, and until May once they are harvested.
I saw the first Moro oranges of the season in the market this week, so I immediately snatched them up. Since it’s early in the season, the color of their flesh wasn’t as dark as what I was hoping for (solely for the sake of photos), but the flavor was all there! So, I decided to grill some whole Spigola (sea bass), seasoned with the blood orange zest, crushed fennel seeds, salt and freshly-ground pepper, accompanied by the very typical Sicilian Blood Orange and Fennel Salad. The salad is one of my favorite ways to showcase blood oranges. It is very fresh and crisp, and reminds me of summer, even though it is made with winter produce. It is the perfect accompaniment with jsut about any fish, as well as pork.
Fennel is a vegetable that is completely underappreciated in the United States. Prior to moving here, I can’t say that I remember eating fennel even once! That’s really because everything that I had read about it told me that it had a licorice-like flavor. I HATE black licorice, so I steered clear of fennel. What a mistake! It is now one of my favorite vegetables. While it does have an anise-like flavor, it is not nearly as strong as licorice. Its flavor is a bit stronger in its raw form, but mellows when roasted. Raw or cooked, it is absolutely delicious!
Below you will find my recipe for Sicilian Blood Orange and Fennel Salad. If you cannot find blood oranges, regular oranges taste just fine, as do tangerines. I love to add chile flakes to mine (I just love a little spice in my life), but feel free to leave them out. Some people add black olives to the salad, which is delicious, but I do not. My husband does not like olives, so I leave them out. He says that he’s allergic, but I know better. His job is what allows me to live here, though, so I try to be nice to him by leaving olives, asparagus and Brussels sprouts, which are his only food dislikes, out of my cooking.
If you would like to know how I prepared the fish, please send me a note, and I will e-mail it to you.
Sicilian Blood Orange and Fennel Salad
1 fennel bulb, with 1 Tbsp. fronds reserved and chopped
1 small red onion, cut in half, then thinly sliced into half moons
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
About 1/4 tsp. fine sea salt
Freshly-ground black pepper
1/2 small lemon
5-6 blood oranges
3-4 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. fresh Italian parsley, chopped
Cut the fennel bulb in half lengthwise, and then slice it as thinly as possible. The best way to do this is using a mandoline. Using a food processor equipped with a thin-slicing blade would also work well. If you do not have either, just make sure that you are using a very sharp knife. Toss the fennel slices with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper flakes (if using), some of the chopped fennel fronds, and the juice of half of a small lemon. Add the onion slices, and 1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil. Toss to coat, and set aside.
Juice one of the blood oranges. Whisk in the remaining olive oil. Set aside.
Slice off the top and bottom ends of the remaining blood oranges so that they will stand upright. Then, use a knife to cut off the peels in long strips, including as much of the bitter white pith as possible. Turn the oranges on their sides, and slice into thin wheels. Alternately, you can cut the blood oranges into supremes by cutting in between the membranes to free the sections, and then discarding the membranes. Add the blood orange slices to the sliced fennel and onions. Pour in the juice and olive oil mixture, add the chopped parsley, toss to coat, and serve. Buon appetito!
Wine Pairing: Donna Fugata Lighea (50% Zibbibo, 50% Catarratto)