Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Roasted Blood Orange, Fennel and Shallot Salad

The weather is slowly meandering towards spring, some days at least, but the new season produce is sadly still quite some way behind. I am definitely hankering for brighter, sharper, lighter than slow cooked casseroles ladled onto clouds of mash, rich soups thickened with cream or pasta swimming contentedly in pools of cheesy sauce - and like as not a glistening tranche of garlic bread on the side. Apart from anything else I seem to be growing an arse the size of the world. I'm calling it my end of season look.

The trick to sliding gracefully into spring in early March is to look for new and better salad combinations using the last of the winter veg and supplementing it with some of the tasty produce of nearby sunnier climes. Citrus, particularly Italian, is a lovely thing at this time of  year and much of the best of it comes from Sicily which has the optimum  winter temperature range of around 13-29 C, perfect for growing blood oranges. Now blood oranges are a strange fruit, not one I knew at all as a kid and a complete surprise the first time I came across one. They are much the same size as a usual orange, with the same lightly pitted skin. Although it is orange in colour is also has a delicate reddish tinge, like raw sunburn on fair skin. But this is still indisputably an orange. Then when you cut it open, particularly late in the season, the flesh is red - anything from a few traces running through the segments to fully deeply carmine as though the heart of the fruit has suffered unbelievable trauma and bled all the way out to the skin. They are a thing of extraordinary beauty with a sweet taste with a faintly bitter edge and, apparently, three times as much vitamin C as ordinary oranges, at least if you believe what I read on the internet.

This has become my current favourite salad for lots of reasons - it is easy, it is quick, it smells lovely, it tastes amazing, is pretty as a picture, it's not expensive, it's great warm or cold and is a treat in lunch boxes for a day or two. It has contrasting flavours and textures which makes every mouthful different. The first time I made it I served it with a Persian herbed omelette and another salad of aubergine, yoghurt and walnuts and the next time with crisp skinned rare fleshed duck breast and soy and citrus dressed noodles. Both meals were definite highlights of the week.

Roasted Blood Orange, Fennel and Shallot Salad

Serves 4 as a side dish

1 large, nicely rounded fennel bulb or 2 smaller ones
6 banana shallots
2 blood oranges - or ordinary navel oranges if you can't find any
2 tablespoons olive oil

Line a heavy baking sheet with parchment. Cut the base and the 'fingers' away from the fennel then cut the bulb in half from top to bottom. Cut out the core, then cut each half in two again from top to bottom. Turn the pieces onto their side and slice thinly into pieces about half a centimetre thick. Scatter on the tray.

Peel the banana shallots and cut them into half centimetre rings and add to the baking tray.

Cut the oranges in half, reserving one half for later, then cut a very thin slice off the bottom of the three remaining halves. Put one half flesh side down onto the chopping board and cut into quarters then cut each quarter, flesh and skin, into half centimetre slices and add to the baking tray. Repeat with the remaining two halves.

Drizzle with olive oil, season lightly with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and toss everything together. Put into the oven at 200C/400F and roast for about  40-50 minutes, stirring the mixture every 15 minutes or so, until the edges are nicely caramelised.

Remove the tray from the oven and squeeze over about half the juice from the reserved  orange. Tip it all into a pretty bowl, mix gently and taste. Add more orange juice, salt and pepper till you have your perfect balance. Serve while still warm  or at room temperature.

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