Recipe: Blood Orange Salad with Prosecco Anise Syrup
I believe my father’s relationship to the family kitchen was typical for an Italian man. There seem to be three ways Italian men, and I include Italian-Americans, involve themselves in the creation of family meals: They take over the entire dinner preparation in a intense, chef-like manner, locking out the rest of the family; they assert a dictatorial attitude about all things that come out of the kitchen, without actually cooking anything themselves (this kind of man will often do some food shopping just to make sure his wife is cooking with top-notch stuff—a very Roman approach); or they completely take over one aspect of food preparation and make it exclusively theirs, such as grilling, or preparing coffee in a fetishy way. My own father took the one aspect route. He put himself in charge of buying and preparing all the fruit that came into the house. How and why this came about, I can’t say, but he certainly picked up some of it from his father, who made a huge deal of squeezing and sniffing supermarket fruits, especially melons, and approving or rejecting their ripeness before allowing them into his home. It may also have been a vestige of the Southern Italian farming and foraging life endured by our near ancestors, in which no prickly pear was left unexamined.
For my father, fruit was a way of life, almost as central to his existence as his golf clubs. He was enamored of all tropical fruits—pineapples, guavas, mangoes, papayas, kumquats—and he fashioned them into elaborate, well-chilled fruit salads in big glass bowls. In summer he busied himself peeling and slicing peaches and dousing them with red wine or occasionally white wine, or sometimes a splash of grappa. Strawberries or blueberries got tossed with grappa and a little sugar and sprigs of mint. Pears and apples he always served with cheese, after dinner or sometimes at lunch. He’d set out wedges of cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto to start a meal, or more often just cantaloupe sprinkled with salt, a trick he learned from his melon-crazed Puglian father. Cantaloupe also got cut in half and filled with vanilla ice cream, a perfect flavor combination, or, if we had it on hand, with sweet white wine, creating a kind of wine bowl. I absolutely loved that. Pineapple was his top all-time favorite fruit, and he’d slice it and drizzle it with sugar and rum. Bananas got a similar treatment, but he finished them with Kahlua. These were exotic and memorable desserts.
Another specialty of his was what we now call the smoothie. He usually made that with milk, ice cubes, sugar or honey, sometimes a little vanilla ice cream, and his fruit of choice, most often one of his beloved tropical fruits such as mango. Everything went into the blender, and it emerged as a fluffy pastel foam. I went through a nervous stomach era in my teenage years, and my father’s remedy for it was always one of his smoothies, often banana, which he insisted would soothe my perpetually churning gut. It helped more than the Maalox—I’ll have to give him that—but not as much as the Valium that I eventually got a prescription for.
He was a big believer in the health benefits of grapefruit, and he made a big deal about having grapefruit forks in their proper place in the cutlery drawer. (How many people even know what a grapefruit fork is anymore?) Oranges and nectarines he’d just slice up and present on a fancy platter, or work into a citrus fruit salad bowl. When he went to Florida for the winter he always sent me bags of sweet, nipple-topped Honeybell oranges in January. I really loved them, and now I miss them, since I have to order them myself and often forget. Their season is very short. It’s right now, in fact. I’m going to order some as soon as I post this blog.
After dinner in winter he’d bring tangerines to the table, along with whole nuts and a nutcracker and a bottle of Sambuca. That was a lovely cold weather ritual and a fun mess, with peels and shells all over the place. And to the astonishment of family and friends, he’d cut lemons in half and eat them like orange slices. I believe that’s a Southern Italian custom, having become one, I’m certain, only because their lemons are sweeter and more flavorful than ours. I think he used to sprinkle them with sugar. And then there was the juicing ritual. I can see him working in the kitchen at his hand-cranked citrus juicer with a crate’s worth of hollowed-out orange or grapefruit halves strewn all around him. I never saw him more content, almost Buddha-like.
In memory of my father, I’ve created this blood orange salad to celebrate the New Year. I’ve fashioned it in his style, with a little booze included. It’s something I know he would have loved.
Happy New Year’s to you.
A note about blood oranges: Moro and Tarocco blood oranges, both originally from Sicily, are now grown in California, Texas, and Arizona. I used to find imported Sicilian ones. They were very expensive but richly flavored. Since Sunkist started producing them here, I don’t see the imported ones much any more, but local blood oranges can be very good, and they’re the same varieties grown in Sicily, usually Moro and Tarocco. The Moro is acidic and can sometimes taste like baby aspirin, but in a good way. Tarocco is sweeter. The blood color of these oranges varies from fruit to fruit. Some are just barely tinged with red; others are startling dark, burgundy. If you can find Taroccos, use them for this salad.
Blood Orange Salad with Prosecco Anise Syrup
(Serves 4 as a dessert or as a palate cleanser between courses)
1½ cups prosecco (you can use slightly flat leftover prosecco if you have it on hand)
1 tablespoon limoncello
2 whole star anise
½ cup sugar
6 blood oranges
A handful of nice-looking small basil leaves
Pour the prosecco and limoncello into a small saucepan. Add the star anise and the sugar, and give it a stir. Boil over medium-high heat until it’s reduced by half. You should see large bubbles forming on the surface when it’s just done, an indication that you’ve got a nice syrup. Place the pot in the refrigerator until well chilled and thickened. It should have the consistency of loose honey.
Peel and slice the oranges into thin rounds. Lay them out in a slightly overlapping circular pattern on a pretty serving platter (one that’s slightly banked at the edges is best, as it can catch the syrup). Drizzle the prosecco syrup over the top, and decorate with the basil leaves.