Show-Offy Oranges

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We can get oranges all year around, but if you’re one of the lucky few who own an orange tree, you may be wondering about now what you’re going to do with all the fruit weighing its boughs.

This points up the thing about oranges. They have wonderful juice — none better — but what do we ever make with them? Mostly fruit salad. The juice loses its fresh flavor in cooking, and you can’t pickle oranges like lemons, Moroccan style, because they develop a loathsome spoiled-pumpkin aroma.

Astonish the guests

In 17th century England, the thing about oranges was that they were rare and expensive. Unless you owned a special greenhouse called an orangery, you had to buy them imported from Spain or Portugal. With their fragrant peel and optimistic color, they were a show-off fruit, and people came up with show-offy treatments like oranges preserved “after the Portugall fashion.”

The recipe in Sir Hugh Plat’s 1609 “Delights for Ladies” points out that you can cut right through one “as you would a hardboiled egg,” astonishing your guests by revealing a translucent globe of aromatic peel inside. They’re basically whole candied oranges, languid and plush, dark orange-amber in color with an unnatural luster. They have a strange, overdone appeal, kind of like Snooki Polizzi on “Jersey Shore,” even down to the skin tone.

The filling is something like marmalade, but proper marmalade requires an exact balance between fruit pectin and sugar to jell, while the filling of Portugall-fashion oranges isn’t expected to jell. So they’re easier to make than marmalade, though they still involve a little more trouble than we’re used to taking with oranges. I, for one, am willing to go to a little trouble when it comes to astonishing the old guests from time to time.

Perfect for dessert

In the 17th century, this was a way of preserving oranges, and they will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks. I think of them basically as an accompaniment for vanilla ice cream. One orange would be overwhelming for a single diner, so serve them by halves or even quarters.

This dish was created for Valencia oranges. Navel oranges will do just fine, although their peels are thicker and you might want to scrape off a little of the bitter white part. Tangelos work too, but tangerines are too small to be practical.

Oranges ‘After the Portugall Fashion’

Makes 4 stuffed oranges, 8-16 servings as a condiment

Ingredients

6 oranges, as nice-looking and uniform in size as possible
Water
6½ cups sugar

Directions

  1. Choose the 4 best-looking oranges. Take one and make a hole in the side (not on one of the ends) with an apple corer. Remove a plug of peel and hollow out the orange, scraping and sawing with the apple corer to remove as much of the pulp and seeds as you can without puncturing the peel — a melon baller is the best tool for this job. Repeat with the remaining 3 chosen oranges.
  2. Quarter the 2 remaining oranges and remove the flesh and seeds, exposing as much of the white peel as possible. Boil all 6 oranges in 4 or 5 quarts of water for 2 to 2½ hours to soften and reduce bitterness.
  3. Boil 6 cups sugar with 3 cups water until clear. Add the oranges and cook on a low boil for ½ hour. They will turn a richer orange color. Remove and drain.
  4. Puree the 2 quartered oranges with ½ cup sugar and stuff the 4 hollowed oranges with this puree (you may have some left over).
  5. Return the oranges to the syrup and poach (the syrup should not quite to cover them) for 15-20 minutes.
  6. Remove, drain and refrigerate.
  7. To serve, present with the hole side down and slice through for maximum effect.

Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock ‘n’ roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times’ award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.

Photo: Oranges “after the Portugall fashion.’”Credit: Charles Perry.

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