My kids love blood oranges because they are a little bit disgusting. “Mommy! Get some really bloody ones!” By this late date in winter they are no longer interested in eating plain old oranges: only the red variety or fresh squeezed juice of the orange one will do.
Like many other five year olds, my son appreciates noisy, messy work, and will do the juicing if I leave him with a pile of sliced citrus. This is one of the best ways I’ve found to occupy his busy hands while I get breakfast made on school mornings.
I love blood oranges because my kids love them and because they are the best harbinger of Spring. One of the last citrus crops to ripen around here, they tend to be followed closely by green garlic, which means I can start thinking about spring risottos and fava beans. Our best weather comes in spring, so every February my family and I make blood orange sorbet and eat it out on our deck to welcome the new season.
We all love to eat blood oranges because they are delicious. Like magical citrus berries, they have a flavor similar to raspberries, which makes them much more exciting than the regular oranges they are so closely related to. Valencia, navel and blood oranges are all cultivars of the sweet orange (Citrus sinensis, aka regular orange), while mandarins, lemons, grapefruits, limes, pomelos and bitter oranges are different species all together.
People living in Southern China, where Citrus sinensis is thought to have originated, knew of the sweetness of oranges and cultivated them for thousands of years before the rest of the world, even though other, more sour, species of citrus developed throughout the Asian continent. Luckily for us, around 500 years ago the sweet orange spread from China to the Mediterranean and on to other warm regions - today Florida and California are two of the largest orange producers in the world. Because blood oranges depend on both a hot and cold season to develop their delicious flavor they do particularly well in California, parts of Texas and the Mediterranean. And not too surprisingly, their flavor can change quite a bit depending on variety of orange and location of orchard.
If you have a choice of which blood oranges to buy, go with Tarocco, which are both native to and very popular in Italy. They are the sweetest and most flavorful of all varieties, and are also rumored to have the highest vitamin C content of any orange, though that may have more to do with where they are grown rather than the particular cultivar. Another variety found frequently around San Francisco is Moro, which can be significantly more sour than Tarocco and often more red in color. An antioxidant called anthocyanin is what causes the red in all varieties of blood orange and large amounts of two other antioxidents (vitamins A and C ) are found in all types of oranges. These compounds help to keep us healthy - so it’s a really good thing that orange and flu season are simultaneous.
As someone who spends time around young kids, I try to take advantage of all this seasonal citrus by eating as much as possible. With all the touching, picking, poking, sneezing, snorfing and rolling around that they do, it is no wonder preschoolers are known to be germ laden. Luckily, germy kids also usually enjoy oranges, especially blood oranges, which can help keep them (and me) healthier.
At a Kindergarten citrus tasting I attended earlier this year, guess which was their favorite, out of pomelo, pink grapefruit, naval orange, mandarin, blood orange and lemon? Yes, blood orange.
In addition to sorbet and fruit tastings, my family also made some cake, to celebrate good report cards. Nigella Lawson's Lemon-Syrup Loaf Cake is easy to make and moist with a nice crumb. Substituting blood oranges for lemons makes it even better.
There are other cookbooks with great information and recipes on blood oranges, too. Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Fruit and Nigel Slater’s Tender Volume 2 are my favorites. If you’re ever looking for something to chase your February blues away, either this cake from How to Be a Domestic Goddess, Waters‘ Blood Orange and Beet Salad or Slater’s Sprouting (broccoli) and Blood Oranges will do it. And just one more thing to keep your spirits up - I love Patricia Curtan’s artwork (she illustrated both Chez Panisse Fruit and Chez Panisse Vegetables) and keep her prints of green garlic and blood oranges hanging in my kitchen all year round. Happy End-of-Winter!
Blood Orange Cake: (adapted from Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess)
For the cake:
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup plus 1 Tablespoon sugar
2 large eggs
zest of 1 blood orange
1 cup plus 1 Tablespoon all purpose or cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 Tablespoons milk
9x5 inch loaf pan, buttered and lined with parchment (make sure the edges stick out for easy lifting)
For the glaze:
juice of 3-4 blood oranges (about 6 Tablespoons)
1 cup powdered (confectioners) sugar
Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter the loaf pan and cut a piece of parchment the same width as the longer dimension of the pan, in a long enough length to line the pan and have edges sticking over the top to use as a handles when removing the cake. The two unlined shorter sides are fine, just use a knife to separate cake from pan before pulling it out.
Cream the butter and sugar, then add the eggs and zest. And the flour, baking powder and salt and mix it thoroughly but gently, adding the milk to thin the batter.
Bake the cake for 45 minutes, or until the top has risen and a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. While the cake is baking, make the syrup by gently heating the juice and powdered sugar until the sugar has dissolved, then turn off the heat.
Once the cake is out of the oven, poke it all over with a toothpick. Let it cool, then remove it from the pan to a plate and pour the syrup over its top.