Recipe: Orange Salad with Pistachios, Black Olives, and Orange Vinaigrette
I give thanks to Mother Nature for oranges. They can make a cold, gray day sunny. They are winter glamor. Right now I find an abundance of oranges in my supermarket, piled up in bins, ready to go tumbling all over the store if I remove one with a lack of finesse. Even with this abundance, each orange seems special to me. Almost no other natural food smells quite so lovely at this time of year.
And after years of immersing myself in Southern Italian food, oranges remind me primarily of one thing, one place, Sicily, where they play a meaningful role in the island’s cooking. Savory Sicilian dishes made with oranges, what a lure they are, and what an unexpected taste they have, a taste I can only describe as exotic.
The savory orange salads of Sicily are a standout even in the vast world of Italian culinary invention. They can be seasoned with sea salt, black pepper, olives, chicory, olive oil, orange flower water, hot chilies, arugula, red onion, fennel, oregano, almonds, scallions, mint, pine nuts. In Palermo I’ve had them with just a sprinkle of salt and a drizzle of good olive oil, but I’ve also been served and created dishes that included just about all of the above. The saltier, the more savory the better, as far as I’m concerned. Orange salads are best made with fruit that’s not not too sweet, but Sicilians can make a sweet orange less so with ease (with biting olive oil, red onion, sea salt, or black pepper to do the trick). The salads are a perfect palate cleanser after a pasta con ricci (with sea urchins) or swordfish involtini. Some kind of orange salad always winds up on my table as the crowning conclusion to my big Christmas Eve fish extravaganza.
I grew up, like most Americans, thinking of oranges as primarily good for morning juice or, after a chemical transformation, as a coating for Creamsicles. Then I started reading Sicilian cookbooks, discovered the existence of these salads, and began to contemplate a strange bowl of seemingly incongruous ingredients as part of my dinner. Well, that sent my culinary head spinning.
Just about any variety of orange will do, as long as they’re fragrant and juicy. In a few weeks I’ll find blood oranges in the markets and I’ll certainly be using those, both for their beauty and bitter sweet flavor.
In Sicily these salads are finished simply with good olive oil. A formal dressing isn’t usually needed with the acidity of the oranges. But I got to thinking that a good way to turn up the orangeness of the salad would be by making a gentle vinaigrette using some of the zest, so its oil could open up, bathing the salad in another layer of orange.
Orange Salad with Pistachios, Black Olives, and Orange Vinaigrette
1 medium head frisée lettuce, torn into small pieces
3 or 4 medium oranges, one zested, and then all of them peeled and cut into thin rounds
½ a medium red onion, sliced into thin rounds
A handful of rich tasting black olives (I used Niçoise)
A handful of unsalted, shelled pistachios, lightly toasted
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (I used Ravida, a very fruity Sicilian estate oil)
About 6 large spearmint sprigs, leaves very lightly chopped
Choose a large, curved serving platter, and lay out the frisée on it. Arrange the orange slices on top of the lettuce in a circular pattern. Now place the onion slices on top. Scatter on the olives and the pistachios. Give everything a gentle sprinkle of sea salt and black pepper (you’ll be adding a bit more to the dressing, so don’t overdo it here).
In a small bowl, whisk together the orange zest, the lemon juice, and the olive oil, adding a pinch more salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Let it sit for a minute or two, and then pour it over the salad. Garnish with the mint, and serve.