Citrus – spotlight on oranges
Oranges, lemons and limes add a welcome tang to many dishes, along with a splash of colour. Grapefruit, too, near the end of the season, is usually sweet enough to include in salads.
Oranges are traditionally eaten as a fruit or squeezed for juice. The zested skin adds a burst of bitter-orange flavour to cakes and baking, stuffings and sauces. Sliced or segmented oranges make a great addition to savoury dishes, especially those with pungent flavours, bringing a fresh sweet-sharp edge. Although oranges can be warmed through it is best not to cook them as segments and slices will collapse and lose their bright colours and flavours.
When a recipe calls for just the grated zest, squeeze the juice and freeze it in cubes in an ice-making tray, or if you only need the juice, grate off the zest and freeze it on a small tray then pack it into a sealable bag and keep in the freezer.
Oranges – what to look for
Oranges should feel heavy for their size and the skin should not be wrinkled or show soft spots. The smell should be fresh and clean – just pure citrusy orange – with no hint of mould or rotting skin. Short term storage is fine at room temperature, and fruit will yield more juice at an ambient temperature, but for extended storage, oranges are best kept refrigerated.
Fruit for the wealthy
Citrus originated in China, India and South-east Asia. Bitter oranges were taken to Spain by the Moors and planted in the courtyards of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain and throughout the south of Spain, and they became known as Seville oranges. Today, Seville oranges are still grown in Spain and it’s the UK which takes about 90% of the crop for turning into bitter marmalade, the connoisseur’s choice for spreading on buttered toast. The rest of the crop is used in bitters, and to make orange flower water and alcoholic drinks such as Cointreau. Seville oranges have a thick rind, tough membranes and rather dry pulp and acidic juice, and plenty of seeds, but they’re strongly perfumed and the flavour is concentrated. The juice can be used in cooking as you would lemon juice, and it gives a concentrated burst of orange flavour to desserts. The rind can be candied or used in stuffings, cakes or mulled wine, and of course, used in marmalade. You’ll occasionally find Seville oranges for sale at farmer’s markets in late August to late September. They can be frozen whole, or quartered, or the rind can be removed then frozen.
Sweet oranges arrived in Europe in the 1500s via Portuguese and Genoese traders. When introduced to Britain, they became a sensation and were sold as a refreshment at theatres. Oranges were a symbol of wealth, and a single orange was often given as a gift. When I grew up, there was always an orange in my Christmas stocking, a tradition passed down through time.
New Zealand oranges
There are three main varieties grown in New Zealand. Navel oranges are widely available and easy to recognize as a miniature orange is embedded in the blossom end of the fruit, resembling a human navel from the outside of the fruit. They’re easy to peel and are generally juicy and sweet, and they’re seedless. If juiced, consume within 30 minutes, before a bitter-tasting compound called limonin develops.
Valencia oranges, which ripen later than navel oranges, extend our orange-growing season in New Zealand. They have a thinner skin and are not as easy to peel as navels, and they have some seeds, but they have copious juice which stays sweet after juicing.
Blood oranges, with their striking deep orange and crimson skin and red juicy flesh are becoming more common. Their flavour is sweet, without tang. The best have a hint of raspberry and the worst are inclined to be bland, but they all make a gorgeous burgundy-crimson juice when squeezed.
Peeling and segmenting orange
To peel an orange, use a small serrated knife and starting at one end of the orange, trim the end and slice away the peel with a gentle sawing action, taking off all the white pith as you go. If you miss some white pith, go back and carefully slice it off. This gives you a nice round orange which can then be sliced or cut into wedges or segments. To cut into segments, cut in between each piece of membrane and release the fleshy segment, letting the segments drop into a bowl as you do them so juice can be collected. If the juice is not called for in a recipe – drink it (squeeze juice from membrane as well). You’ll often see chefs removing the skin and pith very quickly by slicing the ends off an orange first, then slicing down the orange removing the peel in four cuts. Unless done expertly and with a very sharp knife, this wastes a lot of orange and produces square-shaped oranges.
Blood oranges mature late July- August
Navel oranges ripen August
Valencia ripens later, November
Use a small serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion to remove peel from citrus fruit, taking away all the bitter white pith.