Sicilian Fennel Salad

Sicilian Fennel Salad

When Nick and I went to Sicily last year, we had very little knowledge of what Sicilian food is like. We naively assumed it will be just like any other Italian food we’ve had. Boy, were we so wrong! Sicilian cuisine is very distinct and different from the mainland’s. Their flavors were stronger and more assertive, but the preparation is simple and rustic for the most part. There are no culinary acrobatics involved, no complicated thirty ingredient sauces; just fresh and carefully selected produce. Throughout our weeklong stay, we’ve had one amazing dish after the other. It’s location right in the heart of the Mediterranean satiated my longing for good quality seafood and have set the bar for the rest of my life as far as good seafood goes. I’m not even going to start talking about the pastries. There is not enough space in this site to list all the superlatives that come to mind.

The last stop in the Sicily leg of our trip was the city of Catania. It is the main gateway to the island, and home to the best Cassatini Siciliane ever! On our first night we planned on walking down to the fish market by the port to explore the little restaurants serving the day’s catch. Unfortunately for us, it was raining heavily that night and the furthest we dared walk was down the street from our B&B. We found ourselves in this charming dark paneled restaurant that smelled of heaven, and was mercifully able to sit us. They had no seafood on the menu that day, but had rabbit and salmon. Nick got the braised salmon with fennel salad, and I ordered the braised rabbit in ragu over pasta. The rabbit I had is one of the best dished I’ve ever had. I was making humming noises as I was eating it. It was that good! After clearing half our plates, Nick and I started trying the other’s food. His salmon was perfectly cooked and subtly flavored with lemons and capers, but it was the salad that accompanied it that had me planning my permanent move to Sicily. The fennel, oranges, and balsamic vinegar made for such a great combination it was almost impossible to believe that the dish only had ingredients. We tried recreating it when we got back to Chicago, thinking all the time that it will never be as good as what we had in Catania. Surely there was some sort of Sicilian magic involved in making that dish as good as it was. But lo and behold, we were able to replicate it. The first attempt was good, but in subsequent tries, we experimented with different brands and age of balsamic vinegar. While most balsamic vinegars out in the market could reproduce the overall flavor, investing in good quality Modena vinegar made a world of difference in the dish. It was sweeter and more nuanced, and closer in flavor to the one we had in Sicily, so it’s well worth it to invest the best Modena vinegar you can afford.

INGREDIENTS

1 fennel

1 navel orange

2 tbsp good olive oil

¼ cup + 1 tbsp good quality balsamic vinegar

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Wash the fennel thoroughly under running water, making sure to get any grits or dirt out. Trim the top and bottom part, and peel off the outermost layer. Slice the fennel into even thin slices, use a mandolin if you have one and set it on the middle setting. Place sliced fennels in a bowl.

Peel the orange and break apart into individual segments. Peel the segments and take out as much of the pith as you can. You want the segments to look like this.

Toss the orange segments in the bowl with fennel.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper. Pour on top of fennels and oranges and toss thoroughly. Add the remaining tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and toss again but just very lightly. The final splash of vinegar will give the dish an extra fresh jolt of tang, but the dish itself will slowly reveal a gentler, more nuanced, and sweeter licorice flavor.

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