Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Of Bloody Oranges & Pithy Pomelos

Bloody Oranges.

It wasn't very long ago that I discovered that many varieties of citrus fruits actually grow best in the winter.  I found that shocking, having always associated orange juice and bright lemons and limes with the warmth of the summer and sunny Florida.  In a way this paradoxical reality - I do believe citrus actually does taste better when it's warm outside - is a little bit of a winter miracle.  You're holed up deep within the doldrums of a cold, snowy winter, thoughts of heavy gravies and roasts relentlessly dancing inside your head, when out of nowhere every beautiful variation of juicy citrus fruit suddenly appears in your local grocery store.  The idea of it used to bother me, really.  I couldn't figure out what could be wintery about citrus besides maybe throwing them into a giant vat of mulled wine, but that didn't seem to do them justice either.

At a certain point I finally found a recipe that tempted me into giving the abundance of winter citrus a place at home (outside of simply forcing myself to shiver while I ate cold grapefruit on a January morning): the Homesick Texan's "grapefruit brulee."   The idea of a semi-warm, slightly sweeter version of the morning grapefruit really, really appealed to me.

From there, I remembered a salad that had struck me back when I first tasted it - at my sister-in-law's rehearsal dinner in December of 2006 - but which I'd forgotten about since then: a simple grapefruit and fennel salad, which was served with a roast ham.  What a great combination.  And I'd never even noticed the "coldness" of the salad because I enjoyed it so much.

Then the other week I was at the gym reading the December 2012 issue of Sunset (a wonderful magazine that proclaims to expound upon "how to live in the west) when I came upon an article about winter and citrus fruits.  The editor pointed out, rather smartly, that these days we take citrus for granted as a readily available near-commodity.  We can get oranges, lemons, limes at any time of the year thanks to the wonders of mass-farming and global-transportation.  But, she proudly pondered, her father actually remembered (and told her about) a time when an orange in California was very much a Christmas miracle.
How amazing.

* * *

So lately I've been having a celebration of sorts myself - one that involves me buying large quantities of the many citrus fruits we have out there available to us in Colorado at this blustery time of year.  And I've settled on a favorite salad recipe for them, which I'll share.  But first, here are my favorite citrus fruits in list form:

Of Bloody Oranges & Pithy Pomelos
the many citruses I love

5. Pomelos:
Looks: I first had a pomelo on my honeymoon in Thailand.  I used to drop a couple of delicious segments into my ritual morning-pomelo-mimosa (I live a horrifically difficult life, don't I?).  These fruits are yellow on the outside but can also be green or a light orange.  They are a pain to peel and unwieldy in their immense size (the largest citrus, in fact).  If nothing else, they are impressive to look at next to the comparatively puny navel oranges and mandarins.

Likes: Despite the awkwardness of a Pomelo, there is something infinitely satisfying about the enlarged segments, made up of also rather enlarged fruit juice sacs (called vesicles, apparently).  They're like a milder, sweeter grapefruit - on steroids.  The grandfather of grapefruits, actually.  The other day Roman and I devoured one in its magnificent unadulterated form in under five minutes. Good thing it only took half an hour to peel.

4. Blood Oranges
Looks: I should have known my mummy-and-skeleton-obsessed son would love blood oranges before he even tried them.  I first had a blood orange when I moved to Italy and I remember being a little shocked and a little excited when I saw the dark red juices and bright orange colors burst forth from that fruit.  They look like normal navel oranges but on occasion they have a reddish blush across one side of the peel.  And when you cut into them, one end is much bloodier in color than the other, which is almost like an orange-yellow-red rainbow in a cross-segment.  Amazingly - nay, bloody beautiful.

Likes: I don't find the flavor of a blood orange amazingly different from that of a regular orange (some say it contains a hint of raspberry), but to me the wow-factor of the appearance and the name (variations include the exotic: Moro, Sanguinelli and Tarocco) makes the difference in price worthwhile.
They are only available for part of the year, and that itself makes them a special occasion.  Roman was thrilled to have one in his lunch, cut into bright, bloody, fully-peeled segments.  When I picked him up his teacher told me he'd eaten all his oranges.  And he said, "But it wasn't just an orange.  It was a blood orange, Ms. Cavanaugh."  I was proud.
More on blood oranges from my beloved Melrose&Morgan.

3. Navel Oranges
Looks: Despite its deceivingly common facade, the navel orange is just so much fun.  It's better than the common orange (usually Valencia oranges in these parts) because it's easier to peel and less juicy - both factors in a less-messy experience if you're the type that peels oranges by hand.  It is also characterized by the funny belly-button looking growth at the top which is actually like a mini-baby-orange growing at the top of the big orange.  I like to call that growth, much to Matt's horror, "the brain-child."  Something about it reminds me of Krang from the Ninja Turtles.  Don't ask me why that's appealing, but it is.  Call it a bit of whimsy to your orange-y snack, if you will.

When you're looking for a delicious, sweet-and-not-bitter-orange-experience, for me the Navel orange is the way to go.  If you peel it by hand you also get to eat the brain child.  But I usually just cut it into fully-peeled segments (no pith or membrane) for myself or Roman.  It is accompanied perfectly by some Tajin chile & lime seasoning powder (available at Walmart), for a Mexican twist.

2. Grapefruit
Looks: To me there's nothing quite like the pinky-orange color of a Ruby Red grapefruit.  You can get grapefruits that are yellow too, but they don't appeal to me in the least.  I like the bring salmony-coraly pink ones that make you feel like they're at the peak of ripeness.  And I love to eat them with a serrated grapefruit spoon.  We only have one in our drawer right now, which may soon prove problematic as Roman has become quite the grapefruit fiend.

Likes: Growing up in Texas, the Ruby Red grapefruit was ubiquitous, and yet - revered.  It's so pretty.  This bright red grapefruit is the Texas state fruit and is the only grapefruit to ever have a patent awarded to it.  I won't lie, there is some pride associated with eating it for me.  Though, really, in the end I have to admit that sometimes I just really want something bitter.  Like a nice Campari Portofino, or a mean Negroni, or a...grapefruit.  And really that's the main reason I love grapefruits.  They bring a new dimension to citrus - a certain je ne sais quoi that the average orange just doesn't have.  They stand up to strong flavors - precisely why they pair so nicely with fennel and pistachios in the salad I'll share below.

1. Lemons & Limes
Looks:  We all obviously know what lemons and limes look like so I won't get into that.  I will say that I prefer regular-sized limes to key limes (unless I'm at a Mexican taco stand) and that my life changed when I first tried southern Italian lemons.  My biggest complaint with regards to these common citrus fruits is that most people do not know how to choose them in a supermarket.  Nothing irks me more than a dry lime or a lemon that is so hard and whose skin is so thick that you can't get more than two drops of juice out of it. 
When choosing lemons and limes there are two things to look for: thin skin and soft, supple flesh.  If they feel squishy, they have lots of juice.  If the skin is thin, you will be able to get all that juice out.  Oh, and when chopping or slicing them for guests to use with a meal (calamari, for example), please do us a favor and don't provide thin, round slivers: either hand out halves or quarters, but nothing less.

I simply cannot pretend to like any citrus better than I like lemons and limes.  It's odd to me that I've actually never dedicated an entire post on my blog to them because they are one of the few ingredients that are always (and I mean always) on hand in my kitchen.  It kills me that in Portland I had to pay up to $0.65 per lemon for a while, but now that I'm back in the southwest I've found my wonderful Mercado where, at one point in the year, I got limes for 20/$1.00.  I used to eat limes every single night.  My favorite drink of all-time is homemade limeade (or lemonade).  While that's not such a habit anymore, I can honestly say that I truly believe all food tastes better with a squirt (or twenty) of lemon or lime juice on it.

Honorable Mentions: Meyer Lemons & Yuzus
I have a limited experience with Meyer lemons and the Japanese lime-like fruit Yuzu.  Apart from making an ill-fated batch of homemade limoncello back in 2005 (which Matt threw out due to a random fit of paranoia regarding botulism), I've never made anything with Meyer lemons again.  I've never consciously tried Yuzu but I see it all the time.  I think maybe I need to make this Shaker Lemon Pie (better, I hope, than the one pictured below which we ate at the actual Shaker Village in Kentucky) with the Meyers and - if I can ever find them - some Yuzus.

*  *  *

Winter Citrus & Fennel Salad with Pistachios
Serves 4 as a side dish

1 large ruby red grapefruit
2 blood oranges
2 navel oranges
1 lime (optional)
1/2 bulb of fennel, sliced thinly with a mandoline, or by hand
2 Tbsp roughly chopped pistachios
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar

Slice all the citrus fruits by first peeling and then segmenting them so there is no pith or membrane left behind.  For contrast you can also slice a few of them into rounds once you've peeled them, but this is optional.  Add the sliced fennel.

Make the dressing by mixing the oil, vinegar and some salt and pepper in a bowl until the oil is emulsified.  Add to the salad and toss lightly.  Adjust the seasoning and then sprinkle the pistachios over the top.  Serve cold or at room temperature.

*For a variation add some butter lettuce or arugula.  If you're bold, add a sliced avocado. Also, it's nice with a tsp of dijon mustard in the dressing, but personally, I prefer it without.

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