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I spotted a pair of fresh Atlantic mackerel at my fishmonger in Umbria, Italy, this morning, their unmistakable sleek, glossy skin, marked like the waves of the ocean, steely blue and gray. It’s astonishing that a fish so reputedly fragile could be brought so far, from the Atlantic coast of France to this little market town in the Tiber valley, without damage, and yet this pair smelled as fresh as a sea breeze.
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In some quarters, mackerel has a reputation as poor folks’ food, and fancy chefs often scorn it. But I adore this fine fish. Beautiful to look at, even more so to taste, rich and fat and full of healthful Omega 3 fatty acids, mackerel is just the thing to pick me up after a surfeit of meat, which I’ve been consuming at a tremendous rate in the last couple of weeks. Nothing truly beats the mackerel you catch off a dock in Maine on a calm, early summer evening — jigging for mackerel, it’s called — but any fresh mackerel is worth the very slight effort it takes to prepare it. Emphasis is on “fresh,” however — your nose will tell you immediately if it’s not, but the visible evidence is just as reliable: When the shiny skin goes dull and the eyes lose their luster, that’s a fish to reject.
If you catch the mackerel yourself, gut it right there on the dock and toss the guts back in the water where they’ll make a fine supper for some other creature, whether finned or winged. If you’re buying from a fishmonger, have him or her gut the fish for you but leave the head and tail intact for a handsome presentation. The best mackerel recipe is the simplest: Build up a fire on the grill and throw the whole fish on, let the skin blister and bubble, then turn the fish (carefully — use a wide spatula and try not to break up the fish) once only, and cook the other side to a blister. Because the fish are small, rarely reaching as much as a pound, they cook quickly and are done in minutes. Serve with a wedge of lemon and enjoy!
Any fish you don’t consume immediately can be turned into a sort of soused mackerel, a recipe that comes from the eastern Adriatic and is reminiscent of Spanish escabeche.
1 to 1½ pounds fresh mackerel, grilled or broiled
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
1½ cups water
Zest of an organic lemon
Juice of the same lemon, plus enough white wine vinegar to make 1½ cups
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon sugar
3 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
Pinch of sea salt
3 or 4 fresh rosemary sprigs
1. Combine everything but the fish and simmer together for half an hour or so to reduce.
2. Once the marinade is reduced, set it aside to cool and then pour it over the fish — either the whole grilled fish or the fillets, which, once cooked, are very easy to lift off. Leave to marinate overnight or in the refrigerator a couple of days. Serve as part of an antipasto or meze.
But back to the Elizabeth David recipe, Maqueraux a la Façon de Quimper, which is simply poached mackerel with an egg-butter-mustard sauce. I use olive oil instead of butter — it goes better with a rich fish like mackerel. This is also a splendid sauce to serve with poached or grilled salmon.
Maqueraux à la Façon de Quimper
Adapted from Elizabeth David’s recipe in “French Provincial Cooking.”
Makes 2 main course servings, or 4 first-course servings
For the fish:
2 fresh mackerel, each weighing a little under a pound
6 cups water
1½ cups dry white wine
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 carrot, scraped and coarsely chopped
1 small yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 branch celery, coarsely chopped
Handful of fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
For the sauce:
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon lemon juice, or more to taste
2 tablespoons chopped green herbs (parsley, chervil, tarragon, chives, dill, fennel tops)
¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
For the fish:
1. As soon as you get the mackerel home, gut them, if necessary, and rinse under running water. Keep them very cold until ready to cook. Put them in a bowl with ice cubes piled around and set the bowl, covered, in the refrigerator.
2. Make a court bouillon for poaching: In a saucepan or fish kettle large enough to hold the mackerel, combine the water, wine, bay leaves, peppercorns, carrot, onion, celery and parsley. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
3. Drain the mackerel and add to the simmering liquid. Bring back to a gentle simmer and cook for just 10 minutes, then remove the fish immediately from the court bouillon and set aside to cool.
4. When cool enough to handle, lift the skin off the fish and take the fillets off the bones. Check to be sure all the bones are gone, then arrange the fillets on a serving platter and keep cool while you make the sauce.
For the sauce:
You can make the sauce by hand in a bowl, using a wire whisk, but it is easier to make in a blender or food processor.
1. Combine the egg yolks and mustard in the processor and buzz briefly. Add the pepper, vinegar and herbs, and buzz once again, just to combine.
2. Now, with the motor running, slowly add the olive oil, just as you would with mayonnaise, a few drops at a time at first, and then in a steady dribble. The sauce should mount like mayonnaise but for this recipe it should be no thicker than heavy cream. Taste and add more lemon juice if it seems to need it.
3. Pile the sauce in the middle of the serving platter and serve immediately.
Top photo: Mackerel and a copper poissonnière. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Eat more fish. That’s one of the prerequisites of the Mediterranean diet. We all know fish is good for us, yet Americans eat less than 16 pounds a year, man, woman and child. And for a lot of us, this sumptuous route to a healthy diet is simply unheard of. Astonishingly, there are people in this country who have never tasted fish.
Well, I was lucky. I grew up and learned to eat and cook in New England, on the coast of Maine where fish and seafood are considered a normal, customary part of each week’s menu. We weren’t Catholics, but we still ate fish on Fridays, possibly because there was a greater selection on that day. And of course we ate Maine lobster, scallops and crab. But the chef d’oeuvre of my mother’s kitchen was baked stuffed haddock, which I loved so much that later, when I went away to school, my mother always made it for that first welcome-home supper of vacation. She stuffed the whole fish with something like poultry stuffing — sagey, bread-crumby, oniony, thymey, peppery, and delicious — and then served it with a white sauce with sliced hard-boiled eggs in it. This doesn’t sound as enticing now as it was back then; tastes change with time, but I think if my mother were alive now and made that for me, I would tuck into it with just as much gusto as I did when I was 15.
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Explore beyond tuna and shrimp
I’ve always been perplexed at the indifference so many Americans, especially those away from the coasts, display toward seafood. Tuna is our favorite fish, but the greatest quantity we consume by far is canned. That’s a good thing, too, because canned tuna is mostly albacore and not the gravely endangered bluefin. Shrimp is our second favorite and that’s not good because, as delicious as some shrimp can be, most are raised on vast shrimp farms by environmentally destructive, highly questionable practices that yield a tasteless lump of rubbery resistant flesh, good as a foil for cocktail sauce and not much else. If you can get wild shrimp, fantastic! But most of us can’t.
Home cooks steer away from fish because it’s expensive and they don’t know how to prepare it, and then it stinks up the kitchen. Tasteless frozen pre-cooked shrimp and canned tuna require no preparation, which may be a large part of their appeal. Why bother with anything else?
Bother for these reasons: a) because any seafood made at home will be cheaper and probably tastier than in a restaurant; b) because it’s actually very easy to prepare; and c) because, the greatest selling point, it is unassailably good for you. Despite some popular beliefs that fish contains harmful amounts of mercury, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded in a meta-analysis back in 2006 (published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., or JAMA) the health risks from consuming fish are unsubstantiated and have been greatly exaggerated. A much greater risk, said Dr. Eric Rimm, co-author of the study, “is in store for those who avoid fish entirely.”
Even the ultra-conservative American Heart Assn. suggests two seafood meals a week, and the Mediterranean diet recommends “at least” two or three servings weekly for everyone, including children.
“I could never get my kid to eat fish.” I hear you, loud and clear.
Fish for small-fry
Try this: Make fish fingers or nuggets by cutting up some halibut (or salmon grouper, mahi-mahi or the like). Kids love anything fried and crunchy, that they can eat with their hands. Set up three bowls, one with flour in it, one with a well-beaten egg or two, and one with good unflavored bread crumbs seasoned with a pinch of salt and, if your kids will tolerate greenery, some very finely minced parsley. Have a skillet with a skiff of olive oil in the bottom (2 tablespoons or so, depending on the size of the pan) ready to go on the stove.
Now dip each fish finger into the flour, rolling it to coat thoroughly, and shake off the excess. Dip the flour-coated fish into the beaten egg, letting the excess drip off. Put the egg-coated fish into the bowl with the breadcrumbs and roll it around, pressing on all sides so the breadcrumbs adhere. When all your fish fingers are done, set the skillet over medium heat and as soon as the oil is hot, add the fish fingers in a single layer—do it in two or more batches if you have to. Fry until crisp and brown on one side, then turn and fry on the other. By the time the bread-crumb coating is toasty brown, the inside will be cooked through. Serve with plenty of lemon wedges to squeeze on top.
Fish recipe with no fishy smell
Here’s another, only slightly more complicated treatment for those of you who worry about smelling the house up with fishy odors. For each serving, take a square sheet of heavy aluminum foil. Spread about a teaspoon of olive oil over the center, then set a piece of firm-textured fish (see the suggestions above) on it. Add a few disks of carrot and potato, blanched until just starting to tenderize, a slender ring of a smallish red onion, a few slices of zucchini, and perhaps a sliver of red pepper, green chili pepper or a couple of very small grape tomatoes. Fresh herbs are also nice with this—chives, thyme sprigs, or coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley or basil. Sprinkle another teaspoon of oil over the top, add a genteel spritz of lemon juice, and then pull the corners of the foil up and twist them to seal, making a loose packet. Set the packets on a tray and transfer the tray to a preheated 400-degree oven. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fish is done and the carrot and potato slices are tender. Serve in the packets — no fuss, no muss, no cleanup, and no fishy smell in the kitchen.
The message from the Mediterranean? Fish is good for you, it’s simple and easy to prepare, and, as those Harvard researchers determined, the health risks are minimal compared to the benefits. Farmed fish or wild (and the greatest percentage of our seafood consumption these days comes from aquaculture), it’s all to the good.
Top photo: Seafood display. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
The latest news is good news, but it isn’t really new news.
It was 20 years ago almost to the day that my editor at Bantam Books buttonholed me in a hallway in Cambridge, Mass., and said: “We have to do a book about this.”
She was talking about the Mediterranean diet, subject of heated discussions at the First Mediterranean Diet Conference, organized by the Harvard School of Public Health and Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, an organization that I had founded with my colleagues Greg Drescher and the late Dun Gifford. The book that resulted was “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook,” published by Bantam in 1993. And from that day to this I have never ceased believing that this smart, sensible and delicious diet is also one of the healthiest ways of eating that we know, and the easiest to adopt and put on our families’ tables.
Mediterranean diet evidence piles up
So it’s just plain gratifying to have confirmation from the latest and most impressive study, published a few days ago on the New England Journal of Medicine’s website and creating a firestorm of comment in the media and on the Internet. What makes the study truly significant is not just the prestige of the Spanish medical researchers who conducted it meticulously, but also the large cohort (more than 7,000 people) and the long duration (more than five years). In fact, the study was cut short because the results were so clear that it seemed unfair to the control group not to let them in on the good news.
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And what is the good news? Following a traditional Mediterranean diet — rich in vegetables, fruits, and legumes, with a low consumption of meat and dairy products, and with plenty of seafood and plenty of extra-virgin olive oil — brings a healthful outcome. Lots of healthful outcomes. In the case of this study, researchers were looking at cardiovascular disease. The conclusion? A traditional Mediterranean diet can reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease by at least 30%.
Some commenters have called that insignificant, but if you come from a family with a genetic predisposition to heart disease (as I do, both my parents and at least half my grandparents died of stroke and related problems), that’s significant. For me, it is enough to want to follow this diet to the end of my days.
Fortunately, that’s not hard to do. Because the best news of all about the Mediterranean diet is that it is very easy for most Americans to follow. It emphasizes dishes with ingredients that are easy to find in any supermarket, that are easy to prepare, and that are easy to eat because they are all so darned delicious. It doesn’t require fancy ingredients, trips to exotic neighborhoods, or long hours over a hot stove to eat well the Mediterranean way.
But if you are an adherent of what we might call the traditional American diet, it will require some adjustment.
First , cut out processed food entirely. If you read Michael Moss’s new book, “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” you will be compelled to do exactly that. No industrial fats, no added salt, no added sugar.
Then, be prepared to spend more time shopping than most of us do cooking. You need more time at the produce section than standing over a hot stove. Take time to select fresh, seasonal, well-raised fruits and vegetables. These do not necessarily need to be organic, but it helps. Choose produce from as close to home as possible, whether you shop in a local supermarket or are lucky to have a good four-seasons farm stand near where you live.
When it comes time to cook, make it simple:
- Steaming vegetables and tossing them in extra virgin olive oil with finely chopped garlic and herbs is about as complicated as you want to get.
- Grill or oven-roast a piece of fish and serve it with a dribble of olive oil, chopped herbs and a spritz of lemon.
- Make a soup or a pasta sauce by cooking fresh or canned tomatoes with garlic, onion and some chopped basil, then purée for a soup or cook down a little more to thicken for a pasta sauce.
- Soak a batch of dried legumes, such as beans, chickpeas, fava beans, etc., and cook till done, then use half of them in your tomato soup and freeze the other half for another recipe later in the week.
- Make whole-grain bread the only bread on your table. Do away with sweet muffins and sugary breakfast pastries.
- Drink a glass of wine with your dinner.
- Make dessert a piece of fresh seasonal fruit.
- Above all, switch from whatever fats you now use, such a butter, lard or canola, to extra virgin olive oil, which is the finest kind. Use an expensive high-quality oil for garnishing, and a cheaper one for all your cooking, but always choose extra virgin. An aspect of olive oil untouched on in the Spanish study is the presence in extra virgin olive oil of health-giving antioxidant polyphenols that are lacking in regular or refined oil.
And, as the waiter says when he sets down a plate before you: Enjoy!
Top photo: Elements of a classic Mediterranean diet. Credit: Prudencio Alvarez Carballo/iStock
When new olive oils are fresh on the market it’s fun and illuminating to have an olive oil tasting, a sure way to prove that not all oils are alike. Indeed, differences in flavor, aroma and texture can be striking and might lead to thinking more creatively about how different oils can work with various types of food — in a sweet dessert, for instance, a simple green salad, or perhaps with an oven-braised fish.
A few things to remember when organizing a tasting: All your oils should be from the same harvest year, and not older than one year or they will have lost a lot their original oomph. And don’t even think about tasting anything but extra virgin, that’s where the character and individuality of oil comes in. Ordinary olive oil is like salad oil — it all tastes exactly alike.
How to begin olive oil tasting
Pour a couple tablespoons of each oil into separate glasses. Don’t feel you must have special glasses. The photo above shows my own hodgepodge, although I would do better to use a similar glass for each oil. And don’t make the mistake of trying to taste too many at once. Just three can be a good start, although five can be more revealing. Any more and palate fatigue sets in and it’s not fair to the oils at the end of the row.
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Note differences in color and texture. Then pick up a glass and hold it in your palm and, with the palm of your other hand on top of the glass, swirl to warm it. When you feel the temperature is right, take a deep sniff. Think about the aroma and what it’s like — artichokes or freshly cut grass? Old rancid walnuts or nail varnish remover?
Then taste, taking a small sip, not even a teaspoon, in your mouth. Hold it for a moment in the front of your mouth, then push it out to the sides. Finally, as you pull it toward the back of your throat, smile and suck in a little air on each side. And swallow. That last impression is most important — retronasal sensation is what sensory scientists call it — where aromas and flavors come together to define what it is you taste. You might sense fresh almonds or green tomatoes or tomato leaf; you might get a pine resin flavor. In most fine oils, you will sense some bitterness on the sides of your tongue, and pungency in the back of your throat when you swallow — enough sometimes to make you cough.
Professional tasters don’t dip bread to taste oil. If the bread is good, it will detract from the oil’s flavors, and if it’s bad, well, it will detract from the flavors as well. In between tastes, sip a little fizzy water or have a bite of tart green apple to clear your palate.
Here are a few oils I’ve recently had the privilege of tasting that have impressed me with their excellence. All are available in the U.S.
Capezzana: The Contini-Bonacossi family, well-known Tuscan wine producers, make oil from estate-grown Moraiolo and Frantoio olives, a typical Tuscan blend. The oil is a classic, but pleasantly mild and sweet without the intense, cough-producing pungency of many Tuscan oils. Clear green but unfiltered, it has a distinctive aroma of fresh-cut grass. ($42.95 for a half-liter bottle at Olio2go.com.)
COR Limited Reserve: California Olive Ranch, northern Central Valley, leads in the super-high-density production of good, reasonably priced, mass market oils. Limited Reserve, from the first harvest, is a more interesting unfiltered oil with a grassy fragrance and green fruit flavors. Not a lot of bitterness or pungency, but this unfiltered oil has the clean taste that should be a model for other California producers. (shop.californiaoliveranch.com, $17.97 for a half-liter bottle.)
Cru di Cures: From the Fagiolo sisters in the hills of Fara Sabina just north of Rome in Italy’s Lazio region, it is made with Frantoio and Leccino olives as well as a local cultivar, Carboncella. Dated to consume before 31 March 2014. Clear, unfiltered, pale green with gold highlights, it has a delicate fruity flavor but is well-balanced with bitterness and pungency in the after taste. (gustiamo.com, $27.50 for a half-liter bottle)
Laudemio Frescobaldi: Laudemio is an impressive association of 21 Tuscan olive oil estates, all making their oils according to the very strict parameters established by the group some decades ago. Frescobaldi is the easiest of this group to find in U.S. markets, an excellent example of a very carefully made oil, virtually fault free. But it is without the aggressive character typical of Tuscan oils — one that often puts off U.S. consumers. This 2012 harvest has a well-rounded flavor of fresh walnuts and a spicy peppery finish. A carton protects the clear bottle from light. ($40.80 for a half-liter at amazon.com)
Olio Verde: Made by Gianfranco Becchina in Castelvetrano, southwestern Sicily, from his own nocellara di Belice olives (so-called because they look like round green walnuts, noce in Italian). Dated 2012, from a very early harvest that began in late September, this pure-bred Sicilian oil has an almost Tuscan flavor profile; rich green fruit flavors, well-balanced with a spicy retrogusto. ($39.95 at www.Olio2go.com)
Pianogrillo: Made by Lorenzo Piccione from Tonda Iblea olives, a prestigious cultivar from Sicily’s Monti Iblei region. Dated 2012 harvest, to be consumed before 30 June 2014. It is not certified organic, but the producer states that no pesticides or chemical fertilizers have been used. Unfiltered, pleasantly lush in texture, green-gold in color, and very smooth in flavor with a typical fragrance of green tomato or tomato leaf. Pungency at the end adds interest — one of Italy’s most outstanding oils, IMHO. (gustiamo.com, $34.75 for a half-liter)
La Quagliera: Made near Pescara in the Abruzzo region of eastern Italy, just a few kilometers from the Adriatic, from local Dritta olives. Dated to consume before June 17, 2014. Brilliantly golden oil with the fragrance and flavor of ripe almonds. Very well-rounded and balanced between fruitiness and pungency, with a slightly bitter aftertaste. (gustiamo.com, $31.75 for a half-liter bottle.)
Séka Hills: A new arrival on the California olive oil scene. Séka Hills is made by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, an independent tribe of Native Americans in the Capay Valley (east of Napa, west of Sacramento), from 82 acres of arbequina olives, newly planted in the super-high-density or hedgerow system. A clean, fresh almond flavor, typical of this cultivar, is balanced by a lightly pungent tickle in the back of the throat. An excellent example of how California is meeting the challenge of European imports. (sekahills.com/olive-oil, $16 for a half-liter bottle)
Il Tratturello: Made by Francesco Travaglini at Parco dei Buoi in Molise, eastern Italy, from local Gentile di Laurino olives. Dated October 2012 harvest, for use before May 31 ,2014. Another very early harvest, with fresh almond flavors, lightly bitter and pungent, and notes of apple and fresh olive fruit. (gustiamo.com, $42 for a ¾-liter bottle.)
Vicopisanolio: Made by the family of Nicola Bovoli, in Tuscany’s Pisan hills, overlooking the Tyhrrenian Sea. Dated 2012-2013 season for consumption before December 31, 2014. Very early harvest, certified organic. Green and clear, with artichoke and fresh herbs, quite pungent on the finish but beautifully balanced. (gustiamo.com, $43 a half-liter.)
Photo: Olive oil tasting. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
The best time of year for lovers of great olive oil is the harvest season, from October to December, when new stocks pour fresh from the mills. But I would argue that the second best time is right now, late winter to early spring, when fresh oils arrive in our markets from great producers throughout the Northern Hemisphere. (Southern Hemisphere oils, primarily from South Africa, South America, New Zealand and Australia, arrive in U.S. markets beginning in July, after the May harvest.) This is the finest time to taste and understand what a great oil can be.
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This year the arrival coincides with the annual Flos Olei guide, published in English and Italian by Marco Oreggia and Laura Marinelli. The book recognizes the world’s top olive farms and producers in 45 countries, an amazing number. It’s heartening to see that recognition goes well beyond the usual candidates in Italy, Spain and Greece. Croatia, for instance, whose oils are almost unknown to U.S. consumers, has 60 entries in the guide and one of them, Tonin, won top marks. Beyond that, Flos Olei provides interesting background to many lesser-known territories. If I’m traveling anywhere in the Mediterranean — nay, anywhere in the world! — I want my current Flos Olei in my suitcase. Who knows what I might run into? (Copies of the 2013 guide, in English and Italian, can be ordered on-line at marco-oreggia.com.)
Much talk in recent years has dealt with olive oil scams, frauds and deceptions. But there is still an abundance of beautiful, well-made, honest and delicious oils. Yes, they can be expensive; it takes time, care and energy to produce a great olive oil, which is the result of picking by hand at the right degree of ripeness, of pressing within 24 hours of harvest, and of extremely tender treatment thereafter, including shipping at controlled temperatures and protecting it from light, the twin enemies of the finest oil.
Six tips for buying olive oil
1. Never buy oil in clear glass bottles — as noted above, light is the nemesis of olive oil, and even the finest will suffer from display in clear glass under shop lights. Dark green bottles or, better yet, tins are what to look for.
2. Examine labels for harvest and/or bottling information. Current European Union regulations require oil to carry a use-by date that is 18 months from bottling, but new regulations may require a harvest date, which is more important. Olive oil does not get better with age. It’s conventional to say a good oil will last two years — but that depends on how it’s handled in the interim.
3. With European oils (from Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece), look for a symbol of either Protected Denomination of Origin (aka DO, DOP or AOC in France) or Protected Geographical Indication (IGP). These are not invariable guarantees of high quality but are a step in the right direction.
4. Most high-quality olive oil is made by individual producers who cultivate their own olives and closely supervise the production of oil, often on the estate itself. (This is the equivalent of estate-bottled wine.) Look for telling details on the label: the producer’s actual name, information about the method of harvesting and production. Even if you don’t understand the particulars, it is a good indication that someone is sufficiently proud of what he or she is doing to make a public statement about it. And almost all producers have websites where more of this information will be offered. But read astutely: If the label claims the olives are stomped by the clean feet of Tuscan peasants, or aged in oak casks, don’t believe it — and don’t buy it.
5. Taste and taste and taste — use every opportunity to sample olive oils and do so judiciously. Most consumers — and not just in the U.S. — say they like the flavor of fusty oil, and fustiness is a serious defect. Only by tasting over and over again will you be able to confirm the difference between freshness and fustiness. (What does fusty taste like? A bit like old hay left in a corner of the barn until it grows moldy. The taste actually comes from olives that have been left too long before pressing.)
6. Best of all, travel to oil-producing regions at the time new oil is being produced. It is unquestionably the best possible introduction to the nature of this most prestigious ingredient. I think I can guarantee that once you’ve traveled and tasted, you will become a convert and, who knows, maybe even a fanatic like me.
John McPhee once wrote a little book about oranges — a subject of no great consequence, but McPhee brought the humble breakfast fruit to life with engaging dexterity, the kind of masterful treatment that we’ve come to expect of him since. The book was called, with admirable candor, “Oranges.” In 1975, when it was published, orange juice meant reconstituted frozen concentrate, which it still does in an unfortunately large segment of the country. And an orange was simply an orange, identified only as being from California (for eating) or Florida (for juice). McPhee, I recall, mentioned blood oranges but said that no one in Florida, where he did most of his research, would grow them — there was no market, growers said, because of the name.
I first encountered blood oranges in Spain, back when McPhee was still gathering string, as freelancers say, down in Florida. For me, raised on Valencia juice oranges and occasional California navels, they were a revelation. Brilliantly colored, both in the flesh and on the skin, with flashes of red that range from sunset pink to deep mahogany, they have a sharp, tantalizing, tartly honeyed flavor that is about as far from the overwhelming sweetness of a Florida Valencia as you can get. Squeezed into a glass, the juice may look, from a distance, like tomato juice, or perhaps a glass of red wine.
The science of color
The color comes from anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants also called bioflavonoids, and they’re similar to those found in blueberries, beets, cherries, pomegranates and other fruits and vegetables deeply colored in the orange-red-purple spectrum. Cold nights in the orange groves — the low 40s or even the high 30s — force the development of anthocyanins, which in turn produce the vivid coloring. But only in blood oranges, which are notably higher in vitamin C than any others of their clan. (Expose a Valencia orange to cold and you simply reduce its growth rate.)
Plant scientists tell us what any Sicilian knows — the best place for blood oranges to experience that temperature variation is on the slopes of Mt. Etna, where the dark, mineral-rich volcanic soil contributes to their complex flavors. Blood oranges are now grown in many parts of the world, if not always with the singular results of Sicilian harvests. They can be found in supermarket produce sections even in Maine, where I live in the winter. There are actually three varieties available in Mediterranean markets — the tarocco, greatly favored in Sicily where it’s practically a native, the moro, so-called because it has the darkest and richest red color of them all, and the sanguinello, “little bloody” — the name tells you all you need to know.
A blood orange by any name
But in U.S. markets you’ll probably find the produce simply offered as blood oranges, not by a varietal name. No matter what they’re called, they are easily recognizable by the deep red blush, or splash of color, that bathes the orange skin. When the orange is cut in half, you’ll see radiant streaks of red, sometimes covering all the flesh, sometimes in vibrant flashes like the sun’s rays. For the science behind this, here’s an interesting post from the American Society of Plant Biologists.
The best way to experience blood oranges is juiced, a total revelation. Have it on its own, add a splash of vodka for Sunday brunch, or top it with prosecco or Champagne for a mimosa. There is also a respectable tradition of using blood oranges in salads in southern Italy and in Spain. Don’t even think about your grandmother’s mandarin salad with canned orange segments and dessicated coconut. No, these are made up of ingredients that, while seeming odd at first, are so right together you start to think they may have been ordained by the goddess of oranges, whoever she is. The recipes combine thinly sliced oranges with almost paper-thin slivers of red onion and chunks of black olives. The final element, which is the most peculiar and possibly the most difficult to embrace, is some form of salted fish, either anchovies or salt cod.
If you try to leave the salted fish out, I think you’ll find something is missing. The salad is dressed with juice from the oranges and of course olive oil, one robust enough to stand up to the combination of strong flavors — sweet, tangy oranges, salty fish and olives, and pungent red onions. A Spanish picual such as Castillo de Canena’s, or a full-bodied Sicilian or Tuscan oil will be best with this. That, and a few drops of aged red wine vinegar — or true aceto balsamico tradizionale, if you can afford it — just to emphasize the flavors of the orange, and there you are. Perfect for a winter lunch.
Sicilian Orange and Red Onion Salad (Insalata di Arance)
A similar salad from southern Spain uses shredded dried cod instead of the anchovies. If you like that idea, simply desalinate the cod in water for 24 to 48 hours, then dry and grill it over a direct flame (gas or, better yet, in your fireplace) until it is toasted; shred it and use in place of the anchovies below.
Makes 2 servings
4 small oranges, preferably Sicilian tarocco blood oranges
12 to 16 black olives, preferably salt-cured, pitted and halved
4 very thin slices red onion
6 anchovy fillets
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, preferably Sicilian new-harvest oil
¼ to ½ teaspoon aged red wine vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Peel the oranges thoroughly, cutting away the white pith as well as the outside membrane that covers the orange. Slice the oranges (as thin as you can manage) on a plate to catch the juices.
2. Arrange the orange slices in a circle on a serving dish or on two salad plates. Distribute the black olive halves over the top, then the red onion slices, and finally arrange the anchovy fillets over the top.
3. Pour the orange juice over the top of the salad, holding back any seeds. Spoon the olive oil over the salad and then sprinkle with a very little vinegar and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. (A few drops of aceto balsamico tradizionale will add a touch of elegance.)
4. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature to let the flavors develop for at least 30 minutes before serving.
Note: If you cannot find blood oranges, use ordinary Florida juice oranges, but taste them before using. Tangy acidic oranges are to be preferred over sweet navel oranges, but if navels are all you can get, add lemon juice to taste to the orange juice on the plate.
Photo: Blood oranges. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins