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Blood oranges bring color in winter

January 8, 2010

Although it may be hard for us to imagine from our position in the primary eating-orange (as opposed to juice orange) producing state, this winter fruit was once a special stocking stuffer and prized holiday treat. First-person accounts from as recently as 100 years ago have New Englanders thrilling at the arrival of kin from the balmy, dreamy citrus paradise of Florida or California, precious Navels or Valencias in hand.

Ordinary oranges make no such stir today, but the blood orange still retains the exotic allure its cousin once possessed.

A blood orange is so striking and singular it encourages storytelling. The first green grocer to hand one to me accompanied it with a story about how its carmine tint came from growing at the base of grapevines. Given their name, one could surmise more sinister tales.

The truth is, the fruit’s alluring color, ranging from flame-orange to garnet to violet and even deep purple depending on the variety, comes from anthocyanin pigments, found in flowers and berries, but not in other citrus fruit. (The slightly pink Cara Cara or Pink Navel, an equally intriguing and delicious recent addition to the orange family, gets its blush from another pigment, lycopene.) Anthocyanins give blood oranges a subtle raspberry flavor, and contribute to higher antioxidant levels than other citrus—along with the bouquet of usual benefits the citrus family boasts. These are the same pigments, activated by chill nights, that make deciduous trees burst into orange and red flame in fall.

Blood oranges hail from Sicily, where they appeared as a fortuitous mutation several centuries ago. Our most common varieties are the Tarocco, Sanguinello and Moro, this last being the youngest and most fiercely purple. While most blood oranges are still grown in Italy—where they dominate the orange business—and Spain, in the United States they grow in California (Nov. – May) and Texas (Dec. – March), where day/night temperature differences mimic the Mediterranean climate that best suits the fruit and allows it to develop its distinctive color.

Culinarily speaking, blood oranges are at their best in dishes that let their ruby beauty shine.  They dazzle in a deep-hued marmalade, a cocktail or granita, or as striking scarlet disks on an open-faced tart (see Food and Wine magazine’s Flaky Blood Orange Tart recipe from this time last year). They add a twist to the usual orange-slice garnish for pork roast or duck breast. And they make beautiful additions to salads, their crimson segments set off against a bed of greens.

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Blood Orange, Roasted Beet, and Goat Cheese Salad

Serves 2 or 4

This simple—and versatile—salad is excellent with a simple dressing of olive or walnut oil, the juice of one orange, and a touch of honey. Ricotta salata may be substituted for the goat cheese, and a few sprigs of arugula or mesclun can add a piquant touch. Toasted walnuts are also a nice addition.

1 head butter lettuce

1 bunch beets (red, golden, or a mix of both), roasted

2 blood oranges, peeled and sliced into rounds

1 small round of goat cheese, or ½ a log

To roast the beets, wrap in foil or halve and drizzle with oil on a baking sheet, and bake at 400°F until tender when pierced with a fork. Cool thoroughly.

Wash, dry and trim lettuce, then layer with cubed beets, blood orange slices, and dobs of goat cheese. Drizzle with dressing and toss gently just before serving (to avoid beet color bleeding).

(Note: see Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking or Pierre Laszlo’s Citrus: A History for insights into the chemistry and history of blood oranges.)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Patty permalink
    January 11, 2010 11:01 am

    I enjoyed your article. Of all my father’s oranges that he brought from the packing house where he was an accountant, there never was a blood orange. I ate an orange every day all through my childhood in Riverside, but had never seen a blood orange until your photo. Growing up we had beets from the garden, goats but no goat cheese, and oranges. But we never would have thought to make a salad like yours. We made salads when friends came over, with oranges and coconut that was already shredded.

  2. January 30, 2010 6:27 pm

    I’m making this for my mother when I get home. There are too many of her favorite things in it for me not to. Thanks for the inspiration!

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