I have not posted a salad recipe, and that is a shame. This post is about rectifying that.
I made this salad for my mom’s birthday while I was home over winter break. She’s such a lovely person and I thought to myself “if I were as lovely a person as my mother, what would I want for my birthday?” And obviously the answer was a big lunch of lots of small things that one can assemble into infinitely many beautiful little single-bite delights.
This is how I love to eat. I love having lots of different things to try, to alternate bites and tastes, to be creative on the go – essentially, to ‘cook’ while I eat. Don’t get me wrong, I love a big sit-down deal, with courses and cutlery and all that jazz. But the way of eating that is the most utterly joyful and relaxing for me is to saunter into the kitchen for lunch at 1 or 2, put on some tea, and become an explorer in my own kitchen. My sister and I do this all the time when we’re home – we pull a bunch of different things out of the pantry and frigo, like salad greens, quinoa, leftover roasted veggies, crackers, cheese, chocolate, olives, avocado, herbs, seeds, nuts – anything we can get our hands on, really – and have at it. We spend an hour or more just snacking slowly, chatting, and saluting the view of the ocean whenever our eyes lift beyond the windowsill.
So that is what we did for lunch. I made a few things, like these awesome homemade crackers I’d been meaning to try (recipe to come soon!), and we had a leftover avocado chocolate truffle from the night before (same deal! but if you can’t wait, check it out on golubka, one of my favourite blogs), but other than that, it was a whole bunch of little bowls of yummy things to play with and combine: leftover saffron quinoa risotto, balsamic fig jam, dry moroccan olives, crackers, toasted pumpernickel bread, avocado chocolate truffle, porcini oil, honey, hemp hearts, julienne apple with sherry vinegar and spices, and this salad.
Orange Fennel Salad with Cucumber, Ginger, and Raw Cacao Nibs
1 fennel bulb
1/3 english cucumber
1 tsp. fresh ginger, minced
handful of raw cacao nibs
sea salt and extra virgin olive oil to taste
(salad greens like arugula optional; I added in some greens when I made a bigger batch later)
Rinse the fennel well, and slice laterally, as if you were making a cross-section, as thinly or thickly as you like. Compost/sink-dispose the bottom slice where the root was attached, and the top bits where the stalks were with the greens. If you have the greens attached, keep them and use them for something else!
Put all the strips of fennel in a large bowl. Rinse the oranges well, and zest them into the bowl. Peel away the pith and separate the individual sections. Cut the sections in half and toss in the bowl.
Rinse the cucumber well and cut off one third. Cut into quarters lengthwise and slice. You can cut them a different way, but I like how quarters work in the salad. Leave the skin on – it adds great texture and colour to the salad, plus, it’s darn nutritious. Toss it in the bowl.
Cut off a small nubbin of ginger about the size of a teaspoon from the larger root. Peel and mince finely. Toss it in the bowl.
Toss in a handful of raw cacao nibs; you can adjust the amount to your liking.
Dress with a little olive oil and salt to taste, and shake it all up to get the juices flowing! The orange should be soft and its juices should have released to coat the fennel and cucumber.
If you haven’t tried raw cacao nibs before, I highly suggest you do. They are one of the most delicious things ever. They certainly have a bitter chocolate flavour profile, and I do love bitter things. The ones my Dad bought for me (he’s pretty much the awesomest) had a distinctive taste of merlot or pinot noir when I ate them alone, and when I paired them when almonds they took on the faintest flavour of roasted banana. Pretty incredible stuff. Plus, they are uberly healthy. I also used them in the avocado chocolate truffles that I bet you’re just dying to hear about by now because of how much I’ve mentioned them.
Overall, the salad was very light, yet somehow perfectly wintery. The fennel was the gracious star of the show, definitely not overbearing, and shared the stage gracefully with the orange, ginger, and cucumber, with the cacao poking its head in from the wings with a mysterious smile every other bite. The aromatic earthiness of the fennel shone through, and its characteristic licorice-y bite that so many people dislike was tamed by the sweetness and acidity of the orange. The cucumber provided a temperate foil for these two strong flavours, and the ginger added a nice spark that hovered over the whole thing like a gauze made out of fiber optics, or a cape of these. For me, though, it was the cacao nibs that really made it. They have the most remarkable texture – crunchy but not hard, chewy but not soft (paradoxical I know), and the flavour is to die for, especially when combined with other such aromatic ingredients.
What I haven’t told you is that my mom doesn’t like fennel – or at least, she never did. But I decided it was her birthday and so it was the day to change that (I’ve found one of my missions in life is to bring people to love things they think they don’t – more on that later). The verdict: my mom “loved it”. And she didn’t just eat it to be polite – now she “genuinely likes fennel”. She raved about it all day. She asked me to make a big bowl of it to take to our friends’ house for Christmas dinner a few days thence. I was very happy to do so; but I was even happier that I could make my mom a nice lunch for she the whole family to sit down to together, to celebrate with her on her birthday.