A hundred years ago, oranges were a rare treat in Northern climes like ours. They might show up as a special gift in a Christmas stocking, but were not a common food for most people. Today, they are ubiquitous.
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Because oranges are available year-round, we rarely think of them as having a season. However, oranges are best and most plentiful from early December through March. This is the time of year when a steady stream of oranges and tangerines flows into our stores, adding welcome color to our produce sections and our tables during winters' gloom.
All oranges and tangerines, as well as all lemons, limes and grapefruit, belong to the single genus Citrus. Obviously, this is a huge family. Today let's just consider oranges, and leave the other citrus fruits for another occasion.
The three most common varieties of oranges available in our markets are valencia, blood, and navel. Valencias are considered the best orange for juicing. They are a large, sweet and juicy fruit that tends to ripen late in the season, around February. Valencias have the unusual property of clinging to the tree after they are ripe, so they can be harvested over a long period. That is why they are available during the summer when other oranges are scarce.
Blood oranges are interesting both for their tart, rich flavor, and for their color, which can range from an orange-pink to a deep bloody red. The most common variety are Moros, and their flavor evolves as they ripen on the tree. Early Moros show up in December and tend to be very tart. As the season progresses, the balance between sweetness and tartness will improve, with flavor peaking in late January or February.
Navel oranges are America's favorite eating orange. Also known as Washington navels, they have a thick, easy-to-peel skin with a deep orange color. Navels are easy to identify because they have a belly-button-like indentation at the blossom end. They break easily into sections. They are juicy and sweet, with just the right hint of tartness.
Recently, a specific variety of navel orange has been getting rave reviews from foodies and chefs. This is the Cara Cara orange, also known as the red navel orange. Cara Caras are distinguished both by their pink-reddish flesh, and their superb taste, which has been described as "sweet with undertones of sweet-cherry."
When choosing oranges, look for firm (but not hard), organically grown fruit without any soft spots. Oranges will keep for up to a week at cool room temperature and for several weeks in the refrigerator.
To me oranges are best eaten fresh, or as an ingredient in fruit salads or green salads. Here is an easy recipe for a salad featuring Cara Cara oranges.
Arugula salad with Cara Cara orange
1 bunch arugula, washed
1 large Cara Cara orange, sectioned and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
A few pieces of fresh fennel bulb, sliced very thin
1 and 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3/4 cups extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
In a small bowl, combine mustard, red wine vinegar, and a pinch of salt. Whisk in the olive oil. Place arugula and slices of fennel in a salad bowl, and season with a little salt and pepper. Gently toss with just enough vinaigrette to coat the greens. Decorate with the orange pieces. Serve at once.
David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods and has bought, sold and written about food and health for 20 years.