Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ephemeral Beauties

Along with a wild streak of gray hair over my right temple, age has brought me a deep appreciation for the treasures of each season, something that was entirely lost on my younger self. Lately, the end of fall and the whole of winter has become my favorite seasonal time, especially in regard to the bounty of produce.

I've a deep love and respect for the earthiness of turnips and rutabagas and parsnips, the sweetness of fennel, the bright bitterness of collards and Tatsoi; I love cabbages and radicchio and endive, and the cauliflowers and broccolis, but while my vegetable bin seemed to overflow, the same didn't always seem true of my fruit basket.

At some point I realized this had more to do with my own mindset than reality, and off I ventured to the local farmer's market. It would be a trip that would forever change my life, particularly because at the time, I lived in Southern California and in spite of all the agricultural land that fell to new home construction, citrus was still a booming crop. It was there that I discovered the Myer lemon, a cross between an orange and a lemon, and, an all time favorite, the Blood orange. But a funny thing happened over the next two years--Blood oranges disappeared from the farmer's market and the fruit stands that lined the old highway that snaked inland  from the coast; they had never been available at the grocery store so I made no attempt to look there. As par for the course, this only made me crave them more and sent me in search of them-- an odyssey that would last many years.

The funny part of this story, although it did take me a while to laugh, was that when I moved north, just south of Monterrey county, I discovered that Blood oranges are grown in Morro Bay, which is just a 10 minute drive from my house. It was a remarkable and recent discovery and it opened my eyes to all the other citrus that were in front of my eyes.

The above picture shows a mix of Morro Blood oranges, Tarocco oranges--all the way from Italy (I found them at Trader Joe's for $3.19 a bag (5) and I was amazed that 5 oranges could fly from Italy to California for less than I could buy a gallon of gas, so I had to try them) Ruby oranges, and Cara Cara oranges. I decided to do a little taste testing and comparison between the varieties.

I love the Blood Orange in a salad of fennel (chop the fronds as well), black olives, celery, and walnuts. Its color is stunning and the flavor amazing. I also like to toss Blood orange supremes with arugula, olive oil, a splash of champagne vinegar, a bit of parsley and green onion, finely minced, and a good shaving of Parmigiano Reggiano. In fact, I would go so far to say that for me, the Blood orange is a salad orange, or a cooking orange, not an eating orange, although it has spectacular hints of raspberry, I find that the fruit needs a partner to be truly enjoyed. It makes a good pound cake with vibrant coloring and for the same reason, a good orange curd, and a Blood orange sorbet is strikingly beautiful and complex.

Cara Cara oranges are a navel variety thought to have originated as a mutation and are, therefor, not a true cultivar. They have the shortest season, usually from mid-December through mid-January, although, if one is lucky, they can be found an additional week or two on either end of the season. Cara Cara oranges have become my favorite of the winter oranges; they are beautifully colored, a salmony pink to deep coral; they are sweet and highly fragrant with less acid than other varieties. I think them too delicate for a salad, but they are simply marvelous with avocado, a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of Myer lemon and a bit of sea salt and black pepper. They also make a stunning sorbet or granita and I like them as well tossed with a bit of finely shredded mint, a bit of honey and a splash of Prosecco (a dry, sparkling Italian wine more budget friendly than champagne). Cara Cara oranges have an exotic flair and I love to incorporate them in a Moroccan menu.

The Ruby orange is also a local variety much akin to the Blood orange, but less juicy and therefor, less likely to make a good sauce or sorbet. It was milder in flavor than the Morro Blood orange and fine in a salad. This was my first year trying the Ruby orange and I can't say that I would run out looking for it again next season.

Finally, I'm sure the Tarocco orange is perfection in its native land; probably striking in both flavor and coloring, but anything--or anyone--would suffer from a 6,632 mile journey (the distance from Sicily, Italy to my little town) and at only $3.19 for the trip, I am pretty sure my little bag of oranges wasn't in a first-class cabin. It's no surprise then that these oranges didn't even have a hint of sweetness, or a tiny bit of color (they are a variety of the Blood orange, after all) and so, they sit, the remaining four, in my refrigerator as I try to think up something to do with them, but the problem is, as we all know, the better ingredients make the better dish. Best put on some Italian opera and think this one over.

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