In Italian, fennel is called finnochio. It rhymes with Pinnochio. When I was in Campania, the vegetable garden had baby finnocchi growing in the garden. Finnocchi is plural of finnochio. They were darling, their lightly ridged pale bulbs sitting atop the soil and their fragile green stalks and fronds stretching up, a petite version of the adult vegetable they would become. I became their mother hen, clucking about making sure they were well tended to and taking lots of photos as they grew.
A giant hailstorm, blowing in from nowhere one day, caused major stress. As I was safely ducking for cover in the house, what was to become of my bambini finnocchi? After the storm dumped its ice and whizzed past to reveal clear skies and sun, I headed straight to the garden where the finnochi were. Phew. A stalk here or there slightly bent but really no one looked worse for the storm. I left the farm before the finnochi grew up to be harvested. Maybe that was a good thing: a mother hen eating her young is probably not the best conclusion to this vignette. But I sure do wonder what they would have tasted like.
After abandoning my young in Campania, I headed to Sicily on holiday. On the isle of Sicily, and elsewhere in southern Italy I found out, fennel grows like a damn weed. It’s a sturdy wild thing that will emerge under your feet and attempt to trip you when you least suspect. Or at least that’s what happened to me. Perhaps it was retribution for the Campania finnochio abandonment?
Wild fennel is called finocchietto. It’s used in making a digestif of the same name – a kind of sweet, syrupy after dinner drink similar to limoncello except lemons are substituted with wild fennel, making a drink with an herby, floral anise flavour. It was interesting, an acquired taste perhaps.
In Sicily, a fennel and orange salad was on almost every menu. The fennel was of the domestic variety, not the wild, and the oranges were probably plucked from a tree somewhere nearby. It was sometimes tossed with a bit of onion and sometimes with black olives. Again, the olives were most likely plucked from a tree nearby. Fennel, oranges and olives: a showcase of sunny Sicilian ingredients.
This salad is perfect when the weather where you live could be mistaken for the weather of a certain Italian isle floating in the middle of the Mediterranean.
Sicilian Fennel, Orange and Olive Salad
serves 2 generously as a side
1 Fennel bulb (use half if really large or a whole one if medium sized)
2 navel oranges
½ small red onion
¼ to ½ black sun ripened olives (the inky shriveled ones)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
*optional: a splash of red wine vinegar or some lemon juice
Cut off the top of the fennel bulb and reserve some of the fronds for the salad. Cut the bulb into quarters and then cut each quarter into super thin slices. You want the slices to be almost transparent. Do the same with the onion – slice it whisper thin.
A mandolin would make easy work of slicing the onion and fennel into the thinness required. I would have mentioned it off the top but I know no one who has one so I do not expect that you do either.
Remove the peel and pith from the oranges and then segment them. First up, slice the top and bottom of the orange. Place the orange on one of its flat ends on the cutting board. Line up your knife blade where the white pith meets the orange flesh and following the curve of the orange, cut from top to bottom taking off all the pith and peel. Keep going all the way around the orange until you’re just left with orange flesh. Holding the orange flesh in one hand over a bowl to collect any drips (you’ll need the juice for the dressing), cut on the inside of each of orange wedge section on an angle. Each wedge segment should then come loose. Drop them into a second bowl. Once all the segments are cut from the orange, squeeze the remaining pulp core over the bowl of juice to get every last drop.
Pick a few fronds from the fennel stalks you cut off earlier and chop them up gingerly.
I usually don’t fuss over plating salads but with this salad, I like it to be a bit artful, bringing a composed salad to the table. You can toss the salad at the table before serving.
I layer the thin fennel slices first on the plate and then sprinkle the onion over the fennel. I purposely place the orange segments amongst the fennel and onion. The olives come next, nestled here and there. The fennel fronds are sprinkled on top.
Season the salad with some coarse salt. I used sea salt. Drizzle about 2 to 3 tablespoons of the collected orange juice over the plate. If you would like a punch of acid (sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t), drizzle a bit of the lemon juice or red wine vinegar. Then drizzle a good quality extra virgin olive oil over the salad. I actually used the olive oil pressed from olives that I picked while I was in Campania. I felt like I was anointing my salad with olive oil from Jesus himself.
After showing off to all at the table, lightly toss the salad to mix in the dressing and serve. It still looks pretty when it’s tossed about. See?