The last bottle of holiday wine has been drunk, the discarded Christmas trees have been pulped to mulch and my local farmers market has shrunk to a few crates of muddy roots and yellowing kale. It’s time to celebrate something new: the arrival of blood oranges.
Citrus season is in full swing, with tangerines, pomelos and Meyer lemons at their most fragrant and alluring. But none have the festive flair of the crimson-fleshed blood orange. And with more growers planting the somewhat finicky fruit, they are fast becoming nearly as easy to find as clementines — at least from now until April.
Blood oranges were the result of a spontaneous mutation of the sweet orange. The color develops when the fruit is grown in climates with cold nights and warm, sun-filled afternoons.
In Italy, blood oranges are the most popular kind of table oranges. Order a glass of orange juice in Rome and chances are you’ll be served something ruby-hued. The best blood oranges there are rooted in the rich volcanic soil near Mount Etna in Sicily, though they can also grow in other parts of the Mediterranean. In the United States, most are grown in California’s Central Valley, although Arizona and Texas cultivate the fruit as well. And you occasionally see blood oranges imported from Sicily; they tend to be juicer than their American cousins.
There are three main varieties: Italians swear by the variegated blond and scarlet Tarocco, which has a sweet, berrylike flavor and soft, easy-to-peel skin. Taroccos’ red pigment deepens as they reach maturity, which in Italy happens around Valentine’s Day.
Taroccos do not have a blush on their skins, which makes them a harder sell in the United States, said Celso Paganini, a partner in Porto Pavino, an Italian culinary importing company. Not so the Moro, whose striking, crimson flesh bleeds onto their skin as they mature. In Italy, tart Moros are mostly used for juice. But here in the States, the vibrant color has made them a favorite of chefs and mixologists alike.
Finally there’s the thin-skinned Sanguinello, a full-blood variety (similar to the Moro) that isn’t often seen here.
If you have a choice when you’re shopping, choose the Moro for looks and the Tarocco for flavor. Either way, pick fruit that is heavy for its size, an indicator that it’s full of juice (a good tip for any type of citrus).
You can eat blood oranges out of hand like navels. Or toss them into a simple winter salad dressed with olive oil and flaky salt. Paganini recommends peeling the fruit, then slicing them crosswise — “like salami," he said — and dressing with a few drops of good balsamic and a shower of chopped fennel fronds. A few slivers of sweet onion won’t hurt, either. Or mix blood and regular oranges for a pretty salad that helps banish the winter blahs.
Recently, I tossed blood orange segments into a salad of roasted carrots, salty olives and freshly ground spices, which was refreshing, satisfying and stunning with its sunset colors.
Because of their acidity, blood oranges are also excellent with fish. I mixed slices with lime and stuffed them into whole fish, seasoned with fennel and garlic.
And although in Italy a blood orange is often served for dessert all by its lonesome, I sugar things up by making them into an upside-down cake spiked with cornmeal. It’s about as festive as a fruit dessert can get, especially in the cold days of a long winter.