Food, Glorious Food

While in the produce aisle at the store the other night, I overheard another customer asking for an item (I’m not sure what it was) and the man stocking the bins told her there was a problem getting it, something about bad weather somewhere and he wasn’t sure when, or if, they would be getting any of her requested item. What?! We’re so used to just going to the store and having pretty much whatever we want at the ready—whatever the season—that we forget how lucky we are today. A little glitch in the global supply chain and something we’re assuming will be easy to pick up may not always be available. With my strawberries from Mexico and bananas and avocados from various warm climes safely in my cart, I rolled away happy. All was well with my selection for the moment.

This reminded me of a Russian intern I worked with at a previous job some 12 or so years ago. My company sponsored him as part of a program to help Russian people learn about business and take home ideas. While here, this man, who was in his thirties or forties at the time, had gone grocery shopping with his host family and was amazed at the vast selection of items here—shelf upon shelf of numerous choices in each category of food item. Nothing like home, evidently. He also had purchased some oranges, and, with much happiness, presented one to each of us in the office. It was something special to him, that he didn’t readily find at home. But we’re so used to seeing them piled up at the store. We forget that not too long ago such things were not as easy to come by even in this country, depending on where you lived.

When cookbook author Marie Simmons was a kid growing up on the East Coast, big juicy oranges were considered a delicacy so precious that on Christmas morning, she would find one stuffed into the toe of her Christmas stocking. Today, fresh citrus fruits are available year-round, but they’re no less special. Packed with antioxidants, phytochemicals, and other good, health-promoting compounds, citrus fruits are some of the healthiest foods in the grocery store.

In celebration of citrus, this savory dish is a riff on the classic Sicilian salad of orange slices and red onion topped with olive oil and coarsely ground black pepper Marie remembers watching her grandfather eat. Her version, which appeared in Real Food, is made with shaved fennel and topped with toasted walnuts and curls of a sharp, salty pecorino or Asiago cheese. Slice the fennel paper-thin with a sharp hand-held slicer, or use the slicing blade on the food processor, cutting the fennel bulb to fit through the feed tube, as necessary.

I’m not expecting we should break into song about food, glorious food like Oliver Twist, but a little moment of appreciation for the piles of produce we may take for granted couldn’t hurt. Then celebrate with a juicy salad!

Orange and Shaved-Fennel Salad with Toasted Walnuts and Cheese Curls

Serves 4

1 large fennel bulb, trimmed (about 6 ounces)
½ c. red onion, sliced thin in vertical strips
2 large (or 4 small) oranges, peeled, white pith removed, cut either in segments (as pictured) or into ¼-inch thick slices
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. finely chopped fern-like fennel tops
Pinch of coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ c. toasted walnut pieces (see toasting directions below)
2 oz. wedge Pecorino Romano or Asiago cheese

Using a sharp hand-held vegetable slicer or the slicing blade of a food processor, cut the fennel bulb into thin crosswise slices. There should be about 2 cups packed. Place the fennel and the onion in a large bowl, cover with water, and add ice cubes. Let stand 15 minutes. Drain well and pat dry with a clean kitchen towel.

Arrange the orange slices in a single layer on a large platter or four individual salad plates. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and top each with a generous grinding of black pepper.

Toss the fennel and onions in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the lemon juice, and 1 tablespoon of the fennel tops. Add a pinch of salt and a grinding of black pepper. Mound in the center of the orange slices.

To toast walnuts: Add to a small dry skillet and cook over low heat, stirring until lightly toasted, about 5 minutes.

Use a vegetable peeler or cheese plane to cut thin curls of cheese from the wedge and arrange on top of the salad. Sprinkle with walnuts and remaining chopped fennel tops and serve.

Nutrition info (per serving) Orange and Shaved-Fennel Salad: CALORIES 249 (159 from fat); FAT 18g (sat. 4g); CH OL 15mg; SODIUM 264mg; CAR B 17g; FI BER 4g; PROTEIN 7g

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Mary Subialka is the editor of Real Food and Drinks magazines, covering the flavorful world of food, wine and spirits. She rarely meets a chicken she doesn’t like, and hopes that her school-age son, who used to eat beets and Indian food, will one day again think of real food as more than a means to a treat—and later share this with his younger brother.