All winter I've been hoping to find some semblance of citrus at the farmer's market in a futile attempt to continue using only local, fresh produce. Fearing I'd go all winter without so much as a bite of citrus other than lemon and lime, I finally caved and purchased a few of the lovely blood oranges at my neighborhood market. The final straw that broke the locavore's back was a recent story in the New York Times dining section. Mark Bittman ("The Minimalist"), fresh from his tour of Spain with Mario Batali, created a salad based on a dish he had during his tenure touring the country. It was a fresh orange salad topped with an olive puree. It first caught my attention because of the colorful contrast between the pure black puree and the vibrant orange slices. But after some thought, I realized it was a lot like a dish from my childhood.
From time to time my mother would make a dessert for my dad that his mother made for him. It was basically a salad of orange segments tossed with olive oil, salt, sugar, and a drop of vinegar. Although I enjoyed it, as a youngster I found it confusing and a bit odd. As it turns out, it's quite the common dish in Spain, better known as naranjas compuestas (or "composed oranges"). It's not surprising, seeing as Seville oranges are abundant around the country, that they would appear everywhere from starter salads to dessert. As an adult I've come to value oranges as an ingredient that provides both tart and sweet flavors to a dish, and even more recently I've come to admire it as an excellent vessel for both salty and sweet flavors. And so, over the years I've added oranges (and grapefruits) to salads, paired them with bacon, doused fish in their juices, but somehow along the way, managed to forget that they could carry a dish all on their own.
And so, using Mark Bittman's dish as inspiration, I made my way to the supermarket and purchased some oranges, along with the lovely, garnett colored blood oranges I'd been seeking all winter. I find their flavor slightly richer, and a bit more full than your average orange, not to mention that adding them would create such a lovely visual effect. Instead of simply peeling and thinly slicing the oranges, I decided to eliminate all forms of pith (and bitterness) by peeling and then segmenting them. That way I also got to squeeze the juice from the remaining body of the orange and save it for a blood orange vinaigrette later in the week. The other tweak I made to the recipe was in the olive puree. I like black olives but I don't like eating tons of them, so I actually used a mix of black olives, kalamata, and three or four large green olives to give the mix a few greens flecks. There was some herbage in the mix too, including fresh thyme (from my thyme plant!) and a final sprinkle of fennel seed over the whole dish. It was all delicious with the exception of the fennel seed, which could at times be overwhelming (the next time I'll definitely grind it instead, or use some fennel pollen if I win the lottery). Here's my version of the recipe:
Blood Orange Salad With Olive Puree
4 oranges (2 blood oranges, 2 Seville or naval), peeled and segmented
1/2 cup pitted olives (any combination of black, kalamata or green that you like)
extra virgin olive oil
red wine vinegar
1/4 tsp fresh thyme
pinch of fennel seed
pinch of salt
pinch of sugar
Puree olives in a food processor with most of the thyme (reserving a few for garnish) and just enough of the olive oil to make a coarse puree. Set aside. Toss orange segments with a light drizzle of olive oil and vinegar and season with salt and sugar. Plate and top with dollops of olive puree and fennel seed. Enjoy!