We arrived home, our Greek home, that is, a week ago today. When we left Leonidio last August, the landscape was parched and brown after months of that glorious Greek sun pouring (and sometimes beating) down on it. Today, after months of nearly nonstop rain, the land is a profusion of bright green clover and grasses.
Mist clings to the mountains above our house. The gorge that divides the village–usually dry or occasionally host to runoff, torrential and temporary–is now a bonafide river.
Our olive-growing friends are grateful for the rain. Other friends who grow their food for sustenance or sale have mixed reviews: it is difficult to plant lettuces and other delicate winter crops in soil that is drenched with water.
Nonetheless, the produce market down the road is chock full of beautiful cool-weather fare: lettuces, curly endive and spinach, broccoli and cabbage, fennel root and of course, horta, the domestic and wild greens that are a mainstay in Greek cookery. Most of the olive trees are bare, the season to harvest just behind us, but the citrus trees are heavy with oranges, mandarins and lemons.
Yesterday, Manolis, a friend from the village, dropped by with a box of assorted citrus from his trees. A handsome and charismatic man with a thick thatch of white hair, he promised his oranges would taste better than any others from the village. And, indeed, they are delicious. He also brought three heads of lettuce from his garden (also succulent and flavorful) and olive wood for our newly-installed wood stove. All were gifts. This kind of generosity is commonplace here. The day before, for example, while doing errands downtown, we returned to our car to find a bag of mandarins left anonymously on the passenger seat. Okay, to a certain degree citrus season here is akin to zucchini season back in Montana, but still, it is not unusual to find gifts from friends’ kitchens and fields left beside the front door or inside, on the kitchen table.
So now that we are swimming in oranges, what to do with all of them? Of course we will juice many, but we’ll also use some for a favorite salad of mine, which uses orange as its main ingredient. Vincenzo, my partner, first made it for me last year when we were faced with the same delicious dilemma. He calls it “Insalata di Arance,” which in Italian means, simply, “Salad of Orange.” Salty rather than sweet, the salad is typical fare in Sicily, his birthplace, and is traditionally served at the beginning or end of a meal. Vincenzo’s version is the salad in its most basic form made with chunks of orange (blood orange is his favorite), olive oil and salt. There is no need for vinegar, he says (and I agree), because the juice from the orange gives the salad a sufficient tartness.
The salad is also common in Spain, but many variations of it exist throughout the Mediterranean. Common additions include fennel bulb, onion, and olives. Some cooks add pomegranate seeds, others anchovies. Really, you can use your imagination and dream up all kinds of combinations, but in my opinion it is best kept simple in order to allow the main flavors–of orange, of olive oil (fresh and fruity this time of year) and of salt (and pepper if you want it)–to shine.
To make Vincenzo’s Insalata di Arance, simply peel and chop one orange per person and toss it with generous servings of olive oil and sea salt. Vincenzo says the secret is to not skimp on either the oil or the salt as a sufficient amount of each enhances the flavor of the salad and distinguishes it from a typical “fruit salad.” Experiment and you will get it right.
For those who prefer a little more direction, here is a recipe from Ed Behr, the editor and publisher of The Art of Eating, a fine magazine that explores food and wine, their flavors and stories, with passion and precision. The recipe is from Ed’s book, The Art of Eating Cookbook: Essential Recipes from the First Twenty-Five Years.
INSALATA DI ARANCE
4 large oranges (or enough smaller ones to serve four people)
1/3 cup (80 ml) excellent, fresh-tasting olive oil
Salt and black pepper
Black olives (optional)
Thin slices of bulb fennel (optional)
Thin slices of onion (optional)
Peel the oranges using a very sharp knife so as to cut cleanly and avoid pressing out juice. (Ed says a 10-inch or a 25-cm chef’s knife is efficient; I prefer using a sharp paring knife). First cut a disc from the top and bottom of each fruit to reveal a flat circle of flesh; then, following the arc of the fruit, cut wide strips from top to bottom, each time cutting down to the flesh. Afterward, trim any remaining white pith. Slice the peeled oranges crosswise into rounds about 1/4 inch thick (a generous 1/2 cm). Remove any seeds. Vigorously stir together the oil, a good pinch of salt and finely ground pepper, and pour this dressing over the orange slices. Allow the salt to dissolve for about 15 minutes before serving. Optionally, add any combination of the olives, fennel and onion. Serves four.
Καλή όρεξη! (Or, as Vincenzo would say, buon appetito!) And thank you for reading The Shepherd and the Olive Tree.