Yesterday morning before work I walked around my neighborhood. In the valleys, the perfect climate for growing citrus, entire city blocks are lined with orange, lemon and grapefruit trees. I live by the coast, which is cooler and marginally less hospitable to citrus. Regardless, everywhere you look there's a tree filled with orange or yellow fruit. It may get neither as big nor as sweet as the citrus fruit in the valleys, but still I find it overwhelmingly attractive. There's a tangerine tree down the block I particularly covet this time of year. I don't know those neighbors, but every winter I try to work up the courage to knock on their door.
The best oranges I've ever had grew in the yard of my mother's cousin Bernice. She raised her family here in Los Angeles while I was growing up in New York, so we didn't get to know each other until I moved west. She lived alone in a traditional ranch house in the San Fernando valley, and when my kids were small I tried to visit her once a month or so. There was a huge old navel orange tree that produced softball-sized fruit in the winter, fluorescent orange and sweet as candy. I'd take a hundred home in trash bags, then spend hours scrubbing and peeling. No scurvy in our house!
Bernice died a few years ago, and every time I see oranges stacked at the market I think of her. This salad makes me think of her, too, because it's best made with huge, juicy, super-sweet navels like the ones that grew in her yard. The sweet orange contrasts nicely with the salty feta, briny olives and sharp red onion. If the oranges are too sour, it just tastes sour.
If you're really motivated, supreme the oranges by cutting away the orange peel and white pith, then painstakingly cutting each segment away from the membrane - but then be very careful tossing the salad, because the orange segments will be much more fragile without their protective skins. I don't think it's necessary, anyway, and in a "What would Nigella Lawson do?" sort of way, I'll just tell you that it's up to you how fussy you want to be.
Mediterranean orange salad with feta
- 10 navel oranges
- 1 red onion
- 1 cup pitted Kalamata olives
- 1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
- juice of 1 lemon
- 2 Tbsp minced preserved lemon OR zest and juice of 1 lemon
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 2 Tbsp Italian parsley, chopped
Zest two of the oranges with a Microplane, reserving the zest for later.
Put an orange on a cutting board and slice off both ends. Stand the orange on one end and cut down, slicing the peel and pith away from the orange and exposing the flesh. Do this all the way around; some of the flesh will come away with the peel, but that can’t be helped. Now slice the orange flesh into 1-inch rounds, and the rounds into chunks. Put the orange chunks in a big bowl.
Shave the red onion with a mandoline, or slice it in half-moons as thinly as you can. Cut the olives in half. Add those and everything else, including the orange zest, to the bowl, and toss gently. Be generous with the salt and pepper; even though the olives and feta are salty, you’ll still need more salt to balance the sweetness of the oranges.
Let the salad sit at room temperature for an hour, tossing gently every quarter-hour or so, to let the flavors meld. Serve sprinkled with more crumbled feta, if you like.