Why Oranges, Fennel & Capers are the perfect fit
Not what you might expect at first. But oranges and capers are the perfect fit. I remember the sweet, juicy oranges of Sicily, often in a dish with fish. The addition of capers create the perfect balance between the sweetness of the orange and the salty bite of the caper.
Add some fennel and you have the perfect trio.
What makes this combination even more special, is that it works well either raw or cooked.
Let me first introduce you to the main players
The Slow Food Sicilian Orange
Let me introduce you to an extremely rare orange variety, almost impossible to find. Cultivated in the Ribera area, in the Sicilian province of Agrigento, grow seedless Vanilla oranges. They are very much appreciated for their extremely sweet taste, the lack of seeds and their incredible vanilla scent, hence the name: Ribera Vanilla orange.
Thanks to the low acidity of its juice, their popularity is growing in new segments of consumers, especially those affected by gastric mucosa troubles. White in flesh and delicate in taste, it is also excellent for fresh orange juice.
This crop arrived in Sicily thanks to the Arabs in the 10th century. But it was the sailors of Genoa who spread the variety called Vanilla in Sicily, thanks to imports from both China and the Indies. From there, the success of the Sicilian Vanilla oranges has been truly incredible. These oranges are unequalled in the world, both for sweetness and for an unmistakable taste.
It’s no problem if you cannot find them when making this delicious salad, but when in the Agrigento area, try to get your hands on them.
When available you might get them through this link.
The Slow Food Salina Caper
Salina is the 2nd largest Eolian island just north of Sicily. With its three towns, Santa Marina, Malfa and Leni, its part of the Sicilian province of Messina.
Known for it’s olive groves, caper bushes, lush, fig and citrus trees, it’s one of these unique holiday destinations. (watch out for our Sicily Slow Food 10-day holiday in June )
The Salina caper is a protected species under the Slow Food Salina Caper presidium.
Before getting ready to make our salad, you can read all-you-need-to-know about the Salina caper here.
Fennel, or finocchio, as it’s called in Italian, is an important ingredient in Sicilian cuisine. It grows wild across Sicily throughout Spring and into Summer and is the principal ingredient after sardines for pasta con le sarde.
“True” fennel is the plant known scientifically as foeniculum vulgare. This is a case where the English and Italian words come directly from the Latin. In Sicily it’s often called finocchio di montagna or “mountain fennel.” This perennial, which actually grows wild in many areas, is in the apiaceae family (formerly umbelliferae).
Indigenous to the Mediterranean, it thrives even in relative dry climates. Mountain fennel (shown here) rather resembles dill and in Sicilian cuisine is is usually served with pasta or as an ingredient in fritattas. When freshly available I tend to mix it in salads.
Then there’s “Florence” or “Florentine” fennel. This is foeniculum vulgare azoricum, distantly related to plain old foeniculum vulgare. Treated as an annual, this more “domesticated” fennel has a large white bulb (known by the misnomer “anise root”) at its base near the roots. It is aromatic and, apart from its medicinal use, is a basic ingredient in absinthe.
The bulb is edible and tastes a little like celery, containing high levels of various minerals, particularly iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium. It is also rich in Vitamin C and Vitamin B9 (folate). You can easily cook the parts of the bulb or eat them grilled, baked or raw.
Orange, fennel & caper salad
In Sicily this salad is clearly a must and is a side dish to any dish!
Oranges, capers and fennel combine perfectly well especially when sprinkled over with some sublime extra virgin olive oil. It takes less then 10 minutes to reach the moment suprême !
1 fennel bulb, when small 2
1 tablespoon of Salina capers
sea salt from Trapani ( featured on the left is caper flavored sea salt from Trapani )
extra virgin olive oil
Preparation takes 10-15 minutes max
Peel the oranges and cut in thin slices
Do the same with the fennel bulb
Leave the fennel to macerate in the extra virgin olive oil with some orange juice , then mix in the orange slices or parts
Arrange on a decorative serving plate
Sprinkle the capers and the sea salt and go generous on the olive oil. Should you want to bring the orange flavor more to the fore, you can accomplish by adding some of the zest.
Let sit for about 20 minutes before serving.
This makes an excellent side dish with grilled sardines, but according to an unlikely origin story it should be eaten with anchovies. The guys from “The Milk Street Cookbook” apparently have been told by Doriana Gesualdi, that the Siracusans weren’t wealthy enough for sardines.
Sardines, it seems, were long a marker of wealth on the island, where the culinary influences are as much Greek and North African as Italian. With the cultural and economic decline, they sufficed with anchovies. And so Sicily’s classic pasta con le sarde became pasta con le acciughe. Ditto for orange and fennel salad with chopped sardines.
But Siracusa, and much less so Sicily isn’t ‘la cucina dello povero’.
Another Syracusa dish:
Pasta con il sugo alla Syracusana
The Syracusa sauce is obtained by the union of sweet peppers, aubergines or eggplant (courgettes can replace them) and sauce tomatoes. First cook black olives, capers and basil together in a sauce pan; add the anchovies, previously fried with garlic and oil and crushed almost until they flake.
Continue by draining the pasta still al dente ( preferably short pasta ), and whipping in the sauce. Sprinkle with Sicilian pecorino.
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