Fennel, Orange, and Olive Salad

This past Saturday, I had one of those "sometimes-its-frustrating-to-live-in-Rome" kind of days. Expats and Italians alike will know what I'm talking about -- while there is much to love about living in the Eternal City, you quickly find that there are downsides. Customer service isn't a guarantee here; work ethic is at times scarce; public transport can be unreliable; trips to the bank and post office are to be avoided; bureaucracy is usually more of a nightmare than it already is. In short, I've found that its best to have low expectations when carrying out simple tasks -- they can end up being far more difficult than they should, because, well, that's how things tend to work here. 

My day started innocently enough with an attempt to bring some sweaters to the dry cleaner, only to find that my dry cleaner -- without explanation -- was closed that Saturday. Undeterred, I headed around the corner to the neighboring dry cleaner, which seemed to be open, but the door was locked (I imagine the owner had stepped out for a coffee?). Having now wasted 15 minutes, I headed back up to my apartment to drop off my laundry, and decided to try my luck at the supermarket -- only to find that the lines were incredibly long, as only 2 cash registers were open. After a long wait in a long, hopelessly disorganized line, I headed home, disgruntled, where I discovered our internet had inexplicably gone out, leaving behind an ominously blinking modem. A trip to the Wind store was fruitless, with the employees shrugging their shoulders and telling me with a shake of their heads that there was nothing to be done but call Wind's Customer Service Line. 

There's nothing worse than calling customer service in Italy. 

After 40 minutes on hold with Wind Customer Service we still have no internet -- I'm writing this post during my lunch break -- but after all the hassle of the weekend, there was one bright, sunny spot that made all of the day's frustrations disappear: this Fennel Salad with Oranges, Olives, and Red Onion.

Now, I know what you're thinking! How can a salad be the solution? Doesn't a tough day call for a bit of dessert, a slice of chocolate cake, or at least a cookie? To that I answer: this is not just any salad. This is an A+ sort of salad, one of those Winter salads I love so much that uses the bounty of winter produce -- parsnips! pears! leeks! mushrooms! radishes! beets! sweet potatoes! kale! or, for the purposes of today's post, fennel and citrus! -- to make a terrific salad even during the coldest months of the year. 

I first tried a fennel and orange salad at the house of Rita Mattioli (my cooking instructor in Bologna) and I've never forgotten it -- this is my attempt to recreate that salad, with a few modifications. The resulting dish is a whole party of textures, flavors, and colors that would put the usual pile of iceberg lettuce to shame: here we've got paper-thin, super crisp anise-flavored fennel, sweet juicy oranges, buttery, crunchy pine nuts, sharp, biting red onion, and salty rich olives, served over a bed of leafy greens, tossed with a splash of fruity olive oil and sunny orange juice, and tied together with a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper (a finishing touch that seems obvious, but really does make all the ingredients shine). The recipe should've served 4 but was polished off by 2, or rather, my sister and me (we kept going back to add a little more to our plates) and if you're trying to eat a little better this year, this is a great recipe to add to your repertoire, too. I was so pleased with this dish that I momentarily forget all of the hiccups I'd encountered that day, and even if I hadn't managed to drop off my dry cleaning or reconnect our internet, well -- at least I had made a darn good fennel salad!

A couple of notes: This salad is fairly flexible. If you'd like, you could substitute grapefruit for the oranges, or substitute shallot for the red onion, or leave out the red onion all together. I bet this would also be good with green olives instead of black. Pistachios might be nice here instead of the pine nuts. Be very, very careful when using the mandoline! Despite my many mental reminders to be careful, I cut my right thumb on it (Saturday really wasn't my day). If you don't have a mandoline, feel free to thinly slice the fennel by hand, but I like the crunchy papery thin slices you can achieve only with a mandoline. I haven't tried this yet, but I think this would also be great served as a warm salad, with the ingredients -- minus the greens -- roasted in the oven, a good option for anyone who may not like the raw fennel flavor. I'll keep you posted! Finally, try and cut the oranges a little neater than I did (note I was doing all this left-handed with a bandaged right-hand).

Looking for other recipes that will exceed your usual boring-pile-of-greens salad expectations? Allow me to recommend this Corn Salad with Tomatoes, Avocado, and a Honey Lime Vinaigrette, this Watermelon and Feta Salad, this Nectarine, Prosciutto, and Burrata Salad, and this Greek Panzanella. Looking for other citrus-y recipes? How about these Lemon Squares, this Triple Orange Pound cake, these Orange Glazed Poppy seed muffins, this Torta della Nonna, these Maritozzi, this Lemon Poppy seed Cake, or these Green Beans with Caramelized Shallots, Pancetta, and Lemon Zest?!


FENNEL, ORANGE, AND OLIVE SALAD

Ingredients for the salad:
1 large fennel bulb
4 medium oranges
1/2 cup black olives (oil-packed)
1/4 of a red onion, very thinly sliced
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
4 cups mixed greens

Ingredients for the dressing:
1/3 cup (about 5.5 tablespoons) olive oil
1/3 cup (about 5.5 tablespoons) orange juice
Salt, pepper

Directions:
Whisk together the ingredients for the dressing and set aside. 
Cut the stems off of the fennel and cut in half. Using a knife, remove the cores from the fennel. Reserve the fennel fronds for garnish. Using a mandoline, very carefully slice the fennel in to thin pieces. Put in a large bowl. 
Next, using a knife to cut away the skin and pith of each orange. Cut horizontally to make round orange slices, or cut vertically and separate the orange wedges away if you'd prefer wedges. Add to the bowl with the fennel. Halve and large olives and add them to the bowl. Thinly slice the red onion and add it to the mix. 
Season the ingredients in the bowl with a little salt and pepper, and add a dash of dressing. Toss everything together. Toss another few tablespoons of dressing with the greens. Distribute the greens on four different plates, top with the fennel, olive, orange, and onion mixture, and garnish with pine nuts and the reserved fennel fronds. Serve the rest of the dressing on the side. Serves 4.

Recipe adapted from www.thekitchn.com, and inspired by Rita Mattioli.
















5-Ingredient Granola Bars

 Along with pasta, olive oil, and wine, I think you could also add "breakfast pastries" to the list of "Things Italy Has Down Pat." The typical Italian breakfast does after all consist of a coffee and something sweet, and Italy has thus risen to the occasion, boasting a wide selection of morning treats, including, but not limited to: the buttery, chocolate-studded saccottino, the sugar-dusted bombolone, the cream-filled maritozzo, the jammy crostata, and, most popular of them all, the cornetto, aka the sweeter cousin of the French croissant. 

A good cornetto is a beautiful thing, possessing a flaky, slightly buttery exterior -- so flaky in fact that a flurry of crumbs are bound to shower whatever surface you're eating over -- that contrasts with its cloud-like interior, which is sometimes filled with a dollop of Nutella or jam. Lucky for me, the cafe in my workplace is right down the hall from my office, and the cornetti happen to be top-knotch (my usual choice is the integrale or whole-grain 
cornetto, which means, or so I tell myself, that it's actually lighter than the average cornetto, prominent butter flavor be damned). It's a yummy breakfast-on-the-go for the days where you hit the snooze button one time too many, portable and easily eaten at your desk, if need be (just be sure to sweep away the aforementioned inevitable crumbs).  

But this is the thing, you guys: as much as I love cornetti, I'd be lying if I said our relationship was perfect. They're not among the most nutritious breakfast items in the world, all superficial buttery deliciousness without much substance or depth, and I don't think I'm alone in saying that they leave you hungry an hour or two after consuming one. 

A homemade granola bar, on the other hand -- though a lot less glamorous than an Italian cornetto -- could just very well be the answer to your breakfast-on-the-go prayers, a healthy yet quick option for the "I should have left for work 10 minutes ago" crowd or those who simply have resolved to eat a little better this year. While they might not have the decadence factor of a breakfast pastry, they're yummy and delicious in their own virtuous way, packed with sweet dates and oats and almonds that keep you full, tinged with salty peanut butter and honey, soft and chewy save the pleasant crunchiness from the almonds. They take only a few minutes to make, and u
nlike store-bought bars, are free of corn syrup and added sugar, made with only five (yes five!) ingredients. And if you've got the healthy breakfast thing down, but struggle after lunch -- no worries, these make a good 3pm snack too (I speak from experience).  

A couple of notes: If you want to make things really healthy, feel free to use all-natural peanut butter or even almond butter (I used crunch Skippy peanut butter with good results). 
You can use maple syrup or agave nectar in place of the honey, if you'd like. Use the stickiest freshest dates you can find -- if you use really dry ones, the bars won't hold together as well. Finally, you can store these in an airtight container for up to a few days, or keep them in the freezer with good results. Sorry for the lack of step-by-step photos, but I made these on a Tuesday night and photographed them the following morning before work!

These granola bars fall in to the category of "things that are usually store-bought but you can actually make homemade,!" which seems to be the theme so far of 2017, given these gnocchi and these taralli. FYI I've also got gelato, bagels, focaccia, Pop-Tartshot chocolatehummus, and popsicles

5-INGREDIENT GRANOLA BARS

Ingredients:
1 heaping cup packed (220 g) dates, pitted 
1/4 cup (84 g) honey 
1/4 cup (64 g) peanut butter, smooth or crunchy
1 cup (112 g) unsalted almonds, chopped
1 1/2 cups (135 g) rolled oats

Directions:
Toast your oats and almonds on a baking sheet in a 350 degree oven for 10-15 minutes, or until slightly golden brown. Place in a bowl and set aside. Note that this step is optional, I happen to like the toasted flavor of the almonds and oatmeal but feel free to skip if you want!

Process the dates in a food processor for about 1 minutes, or until it forms a "dough" like consistency and rolls in to a ball. Add this to the same bowl as the oats and almonds. 

Next, stir together the honey and peanut butter in a small saucepan over low heat until melted and well combined. Pour the peanut butter and honey mixture over the oat, almond, and date mixture and stir well, using the spoon to break up and spread the dates around.

 Once everything is well mixed, transfer your granola bar "dough" to an 8x8-inch baking dish lined with plastic wrap or parchment paper (I used aluminum foil with no problems). Using a drinking glass, press the mixture down until it is flattened and compact -- make sure you really pack the bars together so they stay intact when you cut them. Cover the granola bars with parchment or plastic wrap, and let firm up in fridge or freezer for 15-20 minutes. Remove the square of granola from the pan (just lift out the aluminum foil/parchment paper/plastic wrap) and transfer it to a cutting board. Cut in to 10 bars and serve.



Recipe from one of my new favorite blogs, Minimalist Baker.