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Fennel, Orange and Olive Salad (Insalata di Finocchio)

According to Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods on Mount Olympus and carried it to earth in a fennel stalk. The aromatic bulb has been a key player in Mediterranean cookery ever since. Fennel is a favorite winter vegetable in Rome, cooked or raw, but the addition of orange, recognized throughout Italy as fennel’s natural partner, is of Sicilian origin. The small brown-purple olives named for Gaeta, a picturesque port town in southern Lazio, are favorites in the capital for cooking and eating. This refreshing salad can go at either end of the meal, as an antipasto or a contorno.

Ingredients:

  • 2 rounded, rather than flat, fennel bulbs
  • 1 blood orange or flavorful regular orange 
  • Salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste 
  • 2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil 
  • About 24 Gaeta olives or other flavorful brine-cured black olives, pitted 

Directions:

Trim off the stalks and fronds from the fennel bulbs and reserve for another use or discard. Remove the outer layer from the bulbs and cut away the tough core. Using a sharp knife, cut the bulbs lengthwise into slices about 1/8 inch thick.

Using a sharp knife, cut a slice off both ends of the orange to reveal the flesh. Place the orange upright on the cutting board and, using the knife, cut downward to remove the peel and pith, following the contour of the fruit. Cut the orange in half through the stem end, then slice each half crosswise as thinly as possible. Eliminate any seeds and visible pith.

Salt causes fennel to throw off water and, for many people, the olives provide sufficient saltiness for this salad. But if you want to be able to add salt to the salad, a few minutes in advance of serving, place the fennel slices in a colander, sprinkle them with salt, and let stand to drain off any water before proceeding. Divide the fennel slices among 4 plates. Lay the orange slices on top of the fennel, again dividing evenly, and drizzle the olive oil evenly over the top. Season with salt, if desired, and white pepper, and scatter about 6 olives on each plate. Let stand for a few minutes before serving to give the orange slices time to release some of their juice onto the fennel layer. Serves 4.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Foods of the World Series, Rome, by Maureen B. Fant (Oxmoor House, 2005).