Monday, February 23, 2009

Fennel and orange salad with black olives and pearl couscous

At its most basic, this salad is a simple mix of fennel and orange slices drizzled in olive oil and served with a bit of salt and pepper. The combination of fennel and orange is delightful and quite different from your usual salad flavors.

Because I wanted to make this salad a main meal and not just a side to something else, I decided to liven it up with some olives and sweet onions. I added a hearty batch of pearl couscous (also called Israeli couscous or Lebanese couscous), which is quickly becoming one of my favorite grains, and voilà - a wonderful Winter salad that makes a nice contrast to all the soups and stews and other hearty fare that's generally on the table at this time of year!

Fennel is another one of those vegetables that I had never even heard of, let alone tasted, until I went to Italy. In Italy however, fennel is everywhere, and though I don't think I ever actually ate any fennel while I was there, I did become a big fan of fennel tea.

Fennel has a lovely anise flavor that mixes perfectly with the sweet, very slight tartness of oranges. Though I could only find baby fennel at the market this week, the salad is usually made with full, grown-up fennel. It is supposedly of Sicilian origin, though I've also read that the salad, or at least something very similar, is a traditional Greek food. In any case, it's delicious and I'm sure you can come up with lots of interesting variations on it, should you so desire.

1 bulb of fennel
2 smallish oranges or 1 large orange
2 green onions or 1 red onion
A handful of kalamata olives
100 g pearl couscous
Olive oil

Fill a small saucepan with about a cup of water and bring to a boil. When the water is boiling, turn the heat off and add the pearl couscous. Cover the pot and let sit while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Wash the fennel, chop off the very bottom, and trim off the leaves, reserving some to garnish. Chop the onions into medium-thick slices. Rinse the olives and pit them if necessary by crushing them with the flat side of a knife.

Combine the fennel, onions, and olives in a large bowl. Peel the orange(s) over a bowl to catch their juices and divide them into sections.

When the pearl couscous has absorbed all the water (takes about 10 minutes), fluff it with a fork and add it to the fennel, onions, and olives. Combine the orange juice (hopefully you'll have at least a couple spoonfuls - if not consider adding a bit more, or alternatively, use some lemon juice) with a spoonful or two of olive oil. Drizzle the olive oil and orange juice over the salad, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and stir well to combine.

Spoon the salad into your serving dishes, then add the orange slices and finally, garnish with the reserved fennel leaves.

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