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Sweet, Juicy Oranges Taste Better in Winter

Fine Cooking Issue 69
Photos: Scott Phillips
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During winter, oranges—like other citrus fruits—are at their sweetest and juiciest, so it’s a great time to take advantage of the many varieties. The sweet orange family includes common or blond oranges (like Valencias); navels (with thick skin and an embryonic fruit within the fruit); and blood oranges (with stunning garnet-red flesh). Then there are all the relatives: mandarins, distinguished by loose, easy-to-peel skin and flowery flavor (tangerines are a type of mandarin); temple oranges and clementines (crosses between oranges and mandarins); and tangelos (hybrids of mandarins, oranges, and grapefruit).

Keeping track of what’s what in the orange family can be perplexing. Here’s what you need to know as a cook. Valencias are good all-purpose oranges because they’re juicy, they have good flavor, and their rind, flesh, and juice of have a nice, deep color. Blood oranges contribute an exotic look to salads or other dishes. They’re less acidic than navels and Valencias, which can make them seem sweeter. The flesh and juice of navels are delicious but can turn bitter when exposed to air, so these are best eaten out of hand or served soon after peeling. Fruits labeled as “juice oranges” produce copious amounts of juice and have flavorful zest, but they’re often seedy, pulpy, and messy when sliced.

Oranges really give their all in the kitchen. Every part of the fruit is usable—the flesh, the juice, and the aromatic skin. Only the spongy white pith between the skin and the flesh is a throwaway because of its bitterness. For a light, refreshing dessert that showcases all parts of the fruit, try the recipe for Fresh Oranges with Caramel & Ginger. It’s a sophisticated idea that’s deceptively simple to pull off.

Three tools to remove the zest

Orange zest adds a floral, citrusy accent to dishes. Depending on what I’m cooking, I choose one of three tools to remove the zest: a grater, a peeler, or a zester. Remember that the orange outer layer of peel is what you’re after; avoid cutting into the bitter white pith directly underneath.

Forget the box grater. A rasp-style grater like a Microplane gives feathery, moist threads (and no pith), perfect for cakes, sauces, or any recipe that calls for grated  zest.

To infuse into custards, syrups, or broths, use a vegeetable peeler to cut wide sections of skin. Trim away the white pith by laying the strips flat and holding a sharp knife at a nearly flat angle. For very fine julienned zest, slice the piece into thin strips.

A citrus zester has five small holes for peeling thin shreds of zest, which can be used much the same as grated zest. A channel knife has a single, larger hole, which produces thicker strips that are ideal for garnishes. Some tools include both of these cutting options in one.


Vegetable peeler.
Citrus zester.

Punch up soups and sauces with juice

• Orange juice and zest are dynamite additions to tomato soup, carrot soup, roasted red pepper  soup, or pumpkin soup.

• Make a beautiful sauce for asparagus by softening chopped shallots in butter, adding fresh orange juice and a pinch of saffron, and reducing by half.

• For a simple fish soup, simmer fish broth with orange juice and zest, saffron, garlic, and fennel fronds. Add shrimp, scallops, and white fish to  finish.

• Make a sweet-sour cranberry sauce using equal parts water and orange juice for the cooking liquid.

• Make a marinade for grilled or roasted pork with orange juice, rosemary, garlic, and red chile flakes. 

• Marinate cooked beets in a sweet-tangy dressing of reduced orange juice, honey, and grated zest.

Add zip to desserts with zest

• Grated orange zest and ground coriander give an intriguing scent to butter cookies, shortcakes, pound cake, scones, or biscuits.

• For a twist on pineapple upside-down cake, substitute orange slices and season the batter with grated orange zest and fresh ginger.

• Grated zest adds zip to crème fraîche, whipped cream, brownies, ginger cookies, and chocolate-chip cookies.

• Add a sophisticated touch to homemade dark chocolate ice cream with grated orange zest. Stir the zest into the hot custard before freezing.

• Fold orange zest into macererated berries for shortcake or into fruit destined for pies and tarts.

Make pretty salads with slices

• Compose a winter salad with orange slices, shredded cabbage, and avocado slices; drizzle on a vinaigrette made with orange and lemon juice and honey.

• Toss thin slices of orange with fennel or jícama and red onion, and season with lemon juice, olive oil, and a dash of cayenne.

• Toss bitter greens (radicchio, arugula, watercress, or endive) and orange slices with a sherry vinaigrette and garnish with toasted almonds.


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