Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.
I would like to send President Obama a box of blood oranges. No, I am not trying to send him some secret Sicilian political message. It would be more along the lines of a gentle reminder that Americans should eat food that is distinctive, refreshing and healthful.
Obama, who reportedly enjoys exploring different foods, would surely approve of fresh blood orange juice for breakfast or a salad of blood oranges and fennel for dinner. Indeed, there is hope that his commitment to change may extend to the American diet. Many celebrity chefs and food writers hope the new president will help promote a diet of sustainable foods and encourage Americans to eat more healthfully and expand their palates to new and uncommon tastes.
So, it could be fate that the presidential inauguration coincided with the peak of blood orange season, which runs from December to April.
Perhaps the most stunning variety of citrus, blood oranges are considered one of Sicily's most treasured crops. Historians believe that blood oranges were first cultivated during Arab rule in Sicily in the 9th and 10th centuries. Because of their opulent appearance and singular flavor, blood oranges initially were reserved for royalty. Over time, Sicilians realized that their prized blood oranges could become a source of wealth and began exporting them. Today, the fruit can be found in virtually every country in the world.
Blood oranges continue to thrive in Mediterranean climates such as Italy, Spain and Malta. California, with its Mediterranean-like climate, produces the majority of the U.S. crop, though Arizona, Texas and Florida grow some as well.
There are three main types of blood oranges: moro, tarocco and sanguinello. Moros are the most common blood oranges in U.S. markets. They have a bright orange rind blushed with red, and they're valued for their pleasingly sweet-tart flavor and consistently deep crimson flesh.
Taroccos are less flashy, with a rind that is usually monochromatic orange and less-vivid flesh. Though less popular than the moro in the U.S., they remain cherished throughout Europe, especially in Italy, for their delicate, sweet flavor.
Like a moro, a sanguinello often has a rose-tinted rind, yet its flesh is usually a lighter dappled mix of red and yellow.
When selecting blood oranges, look for unblemished, bright orange-colored fruit, some with an attractive rose-colored blush. The fruit should be heavy for its size and should emit a slightly sweet, floral fragrance. Blood oranges can be stored on the counter for several days or in a refrigerator fruit bin for up to a week. For the best flavor, bring the fruit to room temperature before eating.
Slicing into a blood orange is almost as exciting as eating one. With one quick pierce of the flesh, you will see instantly why they're called blood, or sanguine, oranges.
Anthocyanin, the same chemical that makes blueberries blue and cranberries red, gives the flesh their characteristic bloody color, which can range from pale scarlet to deep magenta, depending on the variety and stage of maturation.
This powerful antioxidant mops up cancer-causing free radicals in the body. Since the most brightly colored foods are also the ones packed with the most cancer-fighting antioxidants, blood oranges are a powerhouse of nutrition. At only 70 calories per fruit, they are a great source of vitamin C, fiber and potassium.
Blood oranges, however, are beloved for more than just their dazzling flesh and nutritional value. It's their flavor — like a subtly sweet orange that has been infused with tangy red grapefruit and hints of tart cherries and raspberries.
Blood oranges are delightful simply eaten out of hand, but don't stop there. In Sicily, freshly squeezed blood orange juice is a typical addition to the breakfast table. Blood oranges also make wonderfully aromatic marmalades and jams and can be cooked in a syrup of sugar, water and spices, then used as a dessert topping for pound cakes, cheesecakes and ice cream.
Like navel oranges, blood oranges are delicious in savory dishes. Sliced blood oranges add pizzazz to salads and salsas. Slightly cooking them mellows their acidity, which makes them ideal for chutneys and relishes that complement seafood, pork, chicken and duck.
Though farmers markets have the most delectable blood oranges, they are plentiful in specialty and organic markets. With their rising popularity over the past several years, they are being sold in most general supermarkets as well. You can even order them online.
All it would take is just one photo of Obama peeling a crimson, juicy blood orange for breakfast, and supermarkets wouldn't be able to keep up with demand — it would be a great new day for the American diet. That's why I would like to send President Obama a box of blood oranges, but I'm afraid that once the Secret Service opens it, there won't be any left for him.
These parfaits are ideal for a special breakfast or brunch. They're easy to assemble, versatile and attractive. The contrasting flavors of tart blood oranges and sweet mango blend deliciously in creamy, honeyed Greek yogurt studded with crunchy pistachios, toasted oats and shredded coconut.
2 small blood oranges, peeled and sliced into segments
1/2 small mango, peeled and diced
In a medium bowl, whisk Greek yogurt, honey and blood orange zest until well combined.
In a small bowl, combine toasted oats, pistachios, coconut and cinnamon.
In two tall parfait glasses, start with a layer of the yogurt mixture, add a layer of the oat mixture, then add the fresh blood oranges and mango. Repeat. End with a dollop of yogurt, and garnish with a blood orange segment and a sprinkle of pistachios.
*Greek yogurt is an extra thick and creamy yogurt that is widely available at most supermarkets. If you can't get Greek yogurt, place regular plain yogurt in a fine mesh sieve over a bowl and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours. Discard the liquid that has collected in the bowl and enjoy the significantly thicker, creamier yogurt.
Peppery arugula is a great taste contrast to tangy blood oranges and salty prosciutto in this Sicilian-inspired salad.
Makes 4 servings
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1/4 cup freshly squeezed blood orange juice
1/4 teaspoon blood orange zest
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar*
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 ounces prosciutto, torn into small strips
6 cups wild arugula**
2 blood oranges, peeled and sliced cross-wise
1/2 medium fennel bulb, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons toasted pine nuts
To make the vinaigrette, place fennel seeds in a small, dry skillet over medium heat. Shake the pan back and forth for 1 to 2 minutes, or until seeds release aroma. Set aside.
In the same skillet, heat 1 teaspoon olive oil. Add shallots and saute until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add remaining vinaigrette ingredients, including the toasted fennel seeds; whisk and heat for 1 minute. Set aside.
Layer prosciutto slices in a medium skillet over medium heat for 30 seconds. Flip once and cook an additional 20 to 30 seconds or until crispy. Set aside.
To prepare the salad, place arugula, orange slices and fennel in a large bowl. Add vinaigrette and toss gently to coat. Divide the salad among 4 plates, topping each with prosciutto slices and toasted pine nuts.
*White balsamic vinegar is made from white wine vinegar and grapes. Because it is milder than traditional brown balsamic vinegar and doesn't stain food, it's preferable for this salad with raw fennel. It can be found at specialty markets and most major supermarkets. Rice vinegar can be substituted.
**Wild arugula is a more delicate version of regular arugula and has a slightly more peppery flavor. It can be found at specialty markets and some major supermarkets. Regular arugula can be substituted.
Seafood has an affinity for citrus. This brilliantly colorful and zesty blood orange and avocado salsa makes the most of pan-seared mahi-mahi or any of several types of seafood, including halibut, tilapia and shrimp.
Makes 4 servings
2 blood oranges
1 medium avocado, peeled, diced and sprinkled with lime juice
1 shallot, diced
1 green or red jalapeno, finely diced (the more seeds, the hotter the flavor)
Zest of 1 blood orange
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
Juice of 1/2 lime (about 2 teaspoons)
Salt, to taste
2 teaspoons each minced fresh mint and cilantro
2 teaspoons olive oil
4 pieces (4 to 6 ounces each) mahi-mahi or other white fish, such as halibut or tilapia
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Using a sharp knife, peel the blood oranges, removing all bitter white pith. Working over a small bowl, cut between membranes to release sections. Add avocado, shallot, jalapeno, orange zest, ginger, lime juice, salt and herbs to the oranges with their juices. Set aside.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Season both sides of fish with salt and pepper. Add fish to the pan; saute until lightly browned and crisp on the outside and opaque on the inside, about 4 to 5 minutes per side. Place fish on a plate and top with a spoonful of salsa. Garnish with additional fresh herbs, if desired.
A fruit compote is a dish of fruit cooked or stewed in a syrup. Though it can be enjoyed on its own, it's a delicious dressing for ice cream, pound cakes and cheesecakes. Here, tart blood oranges are mellowed by sweet honey and aromatic cloves and star anise. The compote pairs beautifully with vanilla gelato or subtly sweet cakes.
Makes 6 servings
1 1/4 cups water
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons honey
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (or half of a vanilla bean, split lengthwise)
4 whole star anise*
4 whole cloves
8 medium blood oranges, peeled and sliced crosswise into circles
In a medium pot over high heat, combine water, honey and sugar; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, and add lemon juice, vanilla, star anise and cloves. Simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes, or until a syrup forms. Add oranges and simmer 5 minutes more.
(Note: The longer you simmer the oranges, the softer they will become. For firm orange slices, simmer no longer than 5 minutes; for softer slices, simmer up to 10 minutes. Any longer than that, and the oranges will begin to break down. They will still taste good, but their appearance won't be as attractive.)
Remove the star anise and cloves before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature.
The star anise make an attractive garnish; however, remind your guests that they are inedible!
*Star anise is the seed pod of an evergreen tree. As the name implies, it is a brown star-shaped pod. The highly fragrant spice typically is used whole, immersed in a dish to infuse it with licorice flavor, but it's removed and discarded before serving. It is available in the spice section of Asian specialty markets, as well as many organic markets and online.