GREEK IDENTITY is heavily marked by the country’s position at the crossroads of Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Head west from the Peloponnese, and you end up at the sole (or southern soul?) of Italy’s boot. Motor north and hit Albania, Macedonia, or Bulgaria. Turkey and the Middle East are within spitting distance—not that you want to spit at them; please don’t misunderstand me. All this results in a combustion of attitudes and ingredients that are hard to duplicate elsewhere.
If you’ve been following global financial news in the past month or so, you know that Europe has not looked too kindly on Greece as of late. Greece has been cast (fairly or unfairly, depending on your point of view) in the role of the poor, fiscally irresponsible, henna-haired stepchild, the unwelcome neighbor dragging the Union down. I imagine this doesn’t bode well for Turkey’s E.U. bid for full membership, either. Mindful of this, yet setting politics aside in favor of flavor, I decided (with a gentle push from the community at Food52) to combine some iconic ingredients of the region and see what this yielded in my kitchen. I don’t expect the results to mean squat for Greece’s debt crisis, for fiscal policy, or for possible bailouts. But hopefully it will get some folks thinking and cooking with a bit more open-heartedness.
Below, you’ll find my Blood Orange and Olive Salsa with Feta and Mint, plus a variation designed for focaccia.
First, though, a word about blood oranges.
They’re aptly named. Cut into one, and you’ve got instant drama as the vermilion juice stains everything on contact, beginning with the orange’s white pith. (Out, damned spot!) They can be a bit of a shock, really—especially if you grab one thinking it’s a regular orange, as my son did. He was both horrified and fascinated when I sliced into it.
Blood oranges are generally sourced to Sicily, and in our world of stereotypes, this makes sense. We all know how passionate and hot-blooded the Sicilians are, right? But there are different varieties of blood orange, and a number are cultivated in the United States, where they are in season from December to March, or even into May for those grown in California. Among the most common types of blood orange are the Tarocco, Moro, and Sanguinello varieties. What all blood oranges share—that which gives them their characteristic, intense color—is the presence of anthocyanin pigments. The word anthocyanin derives from the Greek roots ἀνθός (anthos) for “flower” and κυανός (kyanos) for “blue” or “cyan.” Pigments appear red, purple, or blue, based on pH levels. Anthocyanins belong to the flavinoid group, and they are also a good source of antioxidants. If you’d like to learn more about blood oranges, there’s an interesting story on NPR called The Juicy History of Blood Oranges.
Although I love every citrus fruit under the sun, I had never used blood oranges in my own kitchen before now. I don’t know what took me so long. I am sold now on their sweet-orange-with-a-hint-of-berry flavor.
My first culinary impulse with them was a bit of a flop, though. No, let it be said: a wholesale culinary disaster. I don’t know what happened exactly, but my attempt at a blood orange–sweet chili sauce, using an assortment of ingredients I no longer remember (but that I know included both Thai sweet chili sauce and white balsamic vinegar; blech) ended up, once cooled, a truly horrible concoction for which the only appropriate adjective was “gummy.” I usually force myself to eat my mistakes in the kitchen, but this was impossible; it went immediately into the trash, and I became heartsick over the wasted flesh and juice of a half dozen blood oranges. I changed course immediately, sticking closer to the geographic origins of the fruit and arriving at the combination of ingredients highlighted in this post.
I won’t go into detail on each, but will just call your attention once more to East-West influences and their intersection in the heart of Greek cuisine. Olives seemed to me a natural pairing for the blood oranges, as both Italy and Greece are famous for them. I chose green olives over black, due to the more pleasing color contrast with the oranges. Feta goes without saying, and the mint—especially in its dried form—represents the East to me. Some interesting notes about mint, and its name’s derivation from a Greek legend involving the nymph Minthe and Hades, god of the underworld, can be found in epicentre.com’s Encyclopedia of Spices.
And now, as promised, my recipe for blood orange and olive salsa, with feta and mint. I’ve used it two ways, to dress up a simple broiled salmon and as a topping for focaccia. Both variations and methods are described below. I hope you’ll find many other uses for the basic preparation.
Blood Orange and Olive Salsa, with Feta and Mint
(shown above as a topping for broiled salmon)
This Mediterranean salsa takes its inspiration from two sources: the grab bag challenge ingredients suggested by the creators of Food52, Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, and the cuisine of Diane Kochilas. The salsa pairs fabulously with grilled or broiled fish, and it would also work well on feta alone, which you could bake in foil packets in the oven or prepare saganaki-style (floured and pan fried in olive oil and butter). The way you incorporate the feta and mint is really up to you: dried mint or fresh (chopped and sprinkled on a finished dish as garnish); feta sliced or crumbled. These two components can be added before or after a dish is cooked, or may not be cooked at all, just blended with the blood orange and olive mixture and eaten off the spoon. The recipe as given here is meant to be a catalyst for your own creativity.
Yield: approximately 2 cups salsa
1 cup blood orange segments, all white pith and membranes removed (3 to 4 oranges)
1/2 cup cracked green olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup diced red onion
2 teaspoons nonpareil capers
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 pinch kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Greek sheep’s milk feta (quantity depends on the final dish desired; generally 4-5 ounces is enough)
Mint (1 generous pinch if using dried, blended in with salsa; otherwise, about 1/8 cup chopped fresh mint as garnish)
Combine orange segments, olives, onion, capers, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper in a bowl and mix well. Set aside at room temperature to marinate for about a half hour, or you can refrigerate for use at a later time.
If you are serving the salsa raw, you can incorporate dried or fresh mint at the same time as the other ingredients. If you plan to cook the salsa (as a topping on a fish dish, for example) then either incorporate dried mint into the salsa marinade, or else use fresh mint as a garnish after the dish has cooked. The feta is likewise adaptable to the final dish you desire to make. For something baked or broiled, I generally sprinkle crumbled feta on top of the salsa; otherwise, the salsa becomes a topping for the feta, or else all is blended together and scooped up with triangles of feta.
For the salmon pictured above (or for another broiled fish), spoon about a quarter to a half cup of salsa over the fish, according to your taste and the size of the fillets. If the feta and mint have not already been incorporated into the salsa, then crumble them on top. Broil for about 10-15 minutes.
Blood Orange Olive Focaccia with Feta and Dried Mint
This hearty, rustic bread represents a “best of” compilation of Mediterranean ingredients. Blood oranges (said to have originated in Sicily) combine with Olympian green olives and creamy sheep’s-milk feta to form the topping for this not-so-traditional focaccia. Inside, dried mint adds a subtle nod to the Eastern influence found throughout Greece. Although authentic Italian focaccia is most often flat and seasoned simply with olive oil, herbs, and coarse salt (and very good that way, too), I confess a penchant for higher, airier loaves that support creative toppings the way a good deep-dish pizza can, but without the sauce. This focaccia, topped with anti-oxidants, healthy fats, and a protein source, can be thought of as a meal unto itself, or it can be split and used as the base for a deluxe sandwich. Any way you slice it, you’ll be satisfied. Look for dried mint in any market with a good stock of Middle Eastern foods.
Yield: 1 rectangular loaf focaccia (9 x 13 inches)
For the focaccia dough:
3-4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 envelope (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
2 teaspoons dried mint (if mint leaves are large, crumble them with your fingers)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1-1/2 cups (12 ounces) warm water
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
Cornmeal for dusting the baking dish
For the topping:
1 cup blood orange segments, all white pith and membranes removed (about 4 oranges)
1/2 cup cracked green olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus a few more tablespoons for drizzling on the focaccia
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
5 ounces fresh Greek sheep’s milk feta (preferably packed in water), to yield 1 cup crumbled feta
1 pinch dried mint
1 or 2 pinches sea salt (I like Maldon salt flakes)
Put 3 cups of the flour in a large bowl with the salt, yeast, dried mint, and oregano. Blend together well with a fork. In a measuring cup, combine the warm water (it should be slightly warmer than skin temperature, not too hot) and the vegetable oil. Incorporate the liquid gradually into the flour mixture.
From here, add in extra flour up to 1 cup, as needed to make a smooth, elastic dough (I ended up using another 1/2 cup, which I added in 1/4-cup increments). Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and give it a few extra kneads. Return the dough to a clean bowl that’s been lightly coated with olive oil (you can just rinse out and dry the one you started with), and turn the dough to coat it on all sides. Cover the bowl with a clean, slightly dampened kitchen towel, and set it aside to rest in a warm place for around 45 minutes to 1 hour, until it doubles in size.
While the dough is rising, prepare the topping for the focaccia. Place segmented blood oranges in a bowl with the chopped green olives, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, lemon juice, and pepper. Set aside to marinate.
Preheat the oven to 425F. Coat a 9 x 13-inch baking dish lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with cornmeal.
Turn the risen dough out into the dish. If the dough seems too sticky in the bowl, that’s OK, just sprinkle some flour on the dough, dust your hands with flour as well, and scrape the dough out and into the baking dish. With a touch more flour on your hands if needed, press and stretch the dough across the bottom of the pan. Cover again with a towel and let rise for another 30 minutes.
When the dough has finished rising, have ready a small bowl with a few tablespoons of olive oil. Dip your fingers in the oil and poke holes in the top of the focaccia. Spread on the blood orange and olive mixture, then top with crumbled feta. Sprinkle the focaccia with a little bit of crushed dried mint and drizzle with the olive oil that remains in the small bowl. Sprinkle on a pinch or two of sea salt.
Bake 25-30 minutes, or until the focaccia is puffed and nicely browned.
Eat as is, dip into fine olive oil, or slice and use as a base to build a great sandwich.