For many days I had the pleasure of watching dramatic sunsets over Sicily from across the Strait of Messina: brick red bleeding into rust melting into tangerine with flecks of pink fading into old fashioned vanilla.
That was nearly a year ago, and I haven’t thought much about them lately. That is, until yesterday, when I pulled a knife through the globe of an orange, split it open and there it was: one of those stunning Sicilian sunsets.
I had purchased the orange – nearly a dozen of them – from the independent grocery store up the corner from my house. The produce bins are always laden with spiny fruits and riotous-colored vegetables that the Latino customers seem so sure about and which leave me gaping. This is the most beautiful thing I have every seen; it must taste good. This is a regular thought of mine.
Inexplicably placed near the onions, a gang of blood oranges beckoned me, winked at me, showed off their rouged, lacquered skin. Upon close inspection they were pretty puny – each one could fit in the palm of my hand and my hands are pretty small. Many were badly bruised and soft. But I found some resilient ones with lovely maroon dapples and firm-feeling flesh.
Satisfied with my loot, I headed toward the cash register when a sign stopped me in my tracks. Backing up, I read, “Sicilian blood oranges.” Wait a minute. Beneath the sign I found a pile of very regular looking oranges, except that their skin was a deep, rich orange instead of that indecisive yellowish orange that navel oranges sometimes have. Why didn’t they look like the blood oranges I was carrying in a plastic bag? Were they mistakenly identified? For curiosity’s sake, I took two of these and continued toward the register.
Back in my kitchen I poured the oranges into a bowl. The reddish ones had stickers on them: Moro Sunkist 4381. The larger, orange-skinned so-called Sicilian variety didn’t have stickers. It was time to settle this. I took one of each and sliced them down the middle.
The moro made my heart melt in my chest. It's interior was the painted western sky on a warm evening in Reggio di Calabria, a salty breeze sweeping in off the strait, unsettling skirts as women walked with their lovers and their loved ones for a passegiatta on the promenade. The heavy sun settling back behind Sicilia’s chunk of jagged hills and sloping cities, less than three miles across the cobalt water.
But this was a California orange.
The Sicilian orange did not have the same effect on me. Its prismatic flesh was predominantly orange with only a ring of bleeding around the outer circumference. I was disappointed.
But then it was time for a taste, and the Sicilian variety redeemed itself with elegance. Its flesh was superior in sweetness to the moro. It was juicier, too. If I wanted to eat a blood orange by itself, this was the one I wanted.
I had loftier intentions, though, and as it turned out the combination of these two varieties was exactly what I needed. I had in mind to make a salad similar to one typical to Sicily. Italians, including Sicilians, generally don’t add fruit to their salads, except citrus, and Sicilians take smart advantage of the citrus groves that swath the island’s rugged countryside.
There are so many variations to a Sicilian orange salad that I’m not sure which recipe is authentic. Some combine the fruit with fennel and olives, green onion or mint. I suspect it varies from household to household and the ingredients available. Such is the beauty of Italian cuisine (if there is such a thing; Italy’s cuisine is, of course, so regional.)
I decided to create my own variation, combining blood orange segments with basil for a note of licorice, with red onions for their color, crunch and sweetness, and with crumbles of grainy ricotta salata, a sheep’s milk cheese made from pressed and dried curd, which adds a pleasant saltiness to the salad as olives would have but also another layer of texture. I dressed it with a sprinkling of flavorful extra virgin olive oil.
This salad is full of color and contrast, just as Sicily is itself. When you go, you will find gritty, congested cities like the port town of Messina and fairytale hilltop towns like glamorous Taormina. There will be a hodgepodge of architecture from Arab-Norman cathedrals to Grecian temple ruins. Its people will show you hospitality and reticence, but you will find beauty in it all. Especially if you pause to watch a sunset.
4 California moro blood oranges
4 Sicilian blood oranges
1/4 of a whole red onion
8 basil leaves
4 oz. ricotta salata
extra virgin olive oil
serves 4 for a light first course
Peel and slice each orange into approximately eight wedges. Slice the onion as paper thin as you can make it. Taking a few basil leaves at a time, roll them tightly around each other cigar-style. Slice them widthwise into a chiffonade. Crumble the ricotta salata between your fingers. Arrange the ingredients together on each plate and drizzle with olive oil just before serving.
Turn the salad into a canapé. With each wedge, cut the pulp from the rind and place the pulp back on the skin, slightly off center so the eater will know its already detached. Sprinkle with a few pieces of basil and onion and few ricotta salata crumbles and drizzle with olive oil.