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