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A&E >  Food

Blood oranges add a bit of drama to any dish

By Sylvia Fountaine Correspondent

Come February, many of us could use a bit of cheering up. If taking a trip to someplace warm and sunny isn’t an option, try slicing into citrus and feel its immediate effect, uplifting and therapeutic. In season from November to May, this is the time of year citrus fruits are at their best: juicy and most flavorful.

One of the season’s most dramatic yet misunderstood citrus is the blood orange. It wasn’t until my 20s that I encountered one for the first time. I had just arrived in Italy and had bought a bag of oranges because they were inexpensive, transportable and didn’t require cooking. I sat on a bench after a long day of walking and peeled one. To my horror, it looked rotten inside. Blackish red, it looked scary. I threw it away and peeled another one. What? This one was rotten, too! The same, blackish red flesh – into the trash it went.

I peeled the third one. By this time, I was confused and mad. How could I have picked three rotten oranges? How could that sweet old man who owned the quaint outdoor market let me? As I sat there fuming, I stared at the dark crimson flesh of my last orange. Perhaps it was hunger that gave me courage. I pulled the segments apart, broke one in half and smelled cautiously. Could something that smelled so wonderful really be rotten? It looked like an orange should, except for the strange color. I took a small bite and waited. It was like trumpets blew and angels sang.

Blood oranges – whether they’re the deep crimson-colored Moros or the less vibrantly colored but usually sweeter Taroccos – add a bit of drama to any dish. They taste intensely orangey with a hint of raspberry, and if you get a really good one, they are swoon-worthy: the perfect balance between sweet and tart. As an added bonus, their fragrant aroma does wonders for the winter blues.

They get their color from the anthocyanin pigment. Cold nights and warm days allow the fruit to develop its vibrant hue.

Blood oranges originate from an ancient Mediterranean sweet orange variety, first documented in Italy in the early 1600s. It’s believed they were first grown along the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily because of the balance of cool coastal breezes, volcanic soil and warm sun, giving the fruit its brilliant color. For hundreds of years, the blood orange has been a staple of Italian life.

Three main varieties of these seedless oranges still grow there: the Tarocco, the Sanguinello and the Moro. The Tarocco is the largest and produces a sweet juice. This rarer variety isn’t as common in the U.S., as it requires a particular growing environment. But it is this variety Italians use predominantly to make spremuta, or fresh-squeezed blood orange juice. The different varieties ripen at different times. The ones we’re seeing now, the first to ripen, are Moros. They have the deepest and most consistent color, but can be tart.

Blood oranges are becoming more popular here in the States, and they’re easily found in mainstream grocery stores. Choose oranges that are heaviest for their size. In most cases, pay no attention to the color of their skin, which can be influenced by variety. Sometimes, the peel will have a reddish hue, and sometimes not. If in doubt, just check the sticker.

Sometimes, I think their extreme good looks can be intimidating in the kitchen. Just treat them like you would a normal orange, and you’ll be fine. It really is OK to just peel and eat one – and not feel like you have to do something fancy with it.

A classic Italian recipe using blood oranges is a simple salad composed of blood oranges, peeled and sliced into thin circles, shaved fennel bulb, kalamata olives and fresh mint, all drizzled with a good-quality olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper.

I particularly love them paired with dark chocolate, turned into sorbet and cooked down into a beautiful rich marmalade, lathered over butter toast. It’s such a decadent and celebratory way to either begin or finish the day.

Little by little, incorporate them into everyday cooking like you would a regular orange. This could be adding their vibrant juice to a vinaigrette, squeezing them into your next margarita or simply adding them into your next kale salad. Just get your hands wet, and let their beautiful nature do what it wants to do: delight you.

Moroccan Salmon (or Tofu) with Minted Blood Orange Quinoa and Olives

1 cup rinsed quinoa

1 ¾ cups water

Pinch of salt

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon salt

¾ teaspoon sugar (or brown sugar)

Pinch of cayenne

2 (thick) salmon filets, 4 to 6 ounces each

1 tablespoon cooking oil, for searing

2 green onions, sliced diagonally

¼ cup thinly sliced Kalamata olives

3 blood oranges, divided

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar (optional)

Cracked pepper, to taste

¼ cup almonds

12 fresh mint leaves, torn

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Bring quinoa, water and pinch salt to a boil in a medium pot on the stove. Once boiling, cover and lower heat to low and cook 15 minutes.

In a small bowl, combine cinnamon, cumin, salt, sugar and cayenne. Sprinkle over both sides of the salmon.

Heat oil in a oven-proof skillet (such as cast iron) over medium-high heat. Sear salmon for 2 minutes on each side, then place in the warm oven to finish for 5 minutes or to desired doneness.

In a medium bowl, add sliced green onions, sliced olives and 2 blood oranges (peeled, sliced and cut into quarters). When quinoa is done, fluff with a fork and toss in the bowl with the oranges. Dress with 2 tablespoons olive oil, the zest of the remaining orange and its juice. If you don’t have a particularly juicy orange, add a splash of vinegar. Stir and taste. The olives add quite a bit of salt, so if you leave them out, be sure to add salt. Scatter with toasted, slivered almonds and fresh-torn mint leaves. Serve with the salmon.

Yield: 2 servings

Note: To keep this vegetarian, coat two pieces of tofu with the spice mix and sear like the salmon. Alternately, you could sear cooked chickpeas with the spices and crisp them up.

Chocolate Blood Orange Bundt Cake with Chocolate Ganache

For the cake

1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, plus 2 tablespoons for dusting pan

3/4 cup brewed coffee

4 to 5 blood oranges (1 cup blood orange juice, plus zest of 2 blood oranges – you can also use regular orange juice)

¼ cup triple sec or orange liquor

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, plus more for buttering pan

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour (or fine pastry flour)

1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

For the icing

1 heaping cup semisweet chocolate chips

½ cup milk (or half-and-half or cream)

For syrupy blood orange slices (optional)

2 blood oranges

1 cup water

¼ cup sugar

Place oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Butter (or use cooking spray) the inside of a 10-inch Bundt pan (3 to 4 quarts) very well (take your time to do this well), then dust with cocoa powder, knocking out excess.

Heat coffee, orange juice, zest, orange liquor, vanilla and butter in a medium heavy saucepan over moderate heat, whisking until butter is melted. Then, whisk in 1 cup of cocoa powder. Remove from heat, then add both sugars and whisk until dissolved, about 1 minute. Let cool.

While chocolate mixture cools, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt in a large bowl.

Whisk together eggs and vanilla in a small bowl. Then, temper the eggs by pouring a little of the melted cocoa powder-butter mixture into the eggs, whisking, a tablespoon at a time, to gradually warm them. After about 4 tablespoons, add this egg mixture into cooling chocolate mixture and whisk well.

Add the chocolate-egg mixture to the flour mixture and whisk until just combined (batter will be thin and bubbly).

Pour batter into the greased and cocoa-dusted Bundt pan and bake until a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes.

Cool cake completely in pan on a rack, about 2 hours.

Loosen cake from pan using tip of a dinner knife, then place serving plate over the cake and invert.

To make the icing: Melt the chocolate chips and milk in a small pot over very low heat. Whisk until combined, then pour over the cake.

To make optional syrupy blood orange slices: Very thinly slice 1 blood orange. Place in a pot with 1 cup water and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes, until water has reduced to about ¼ cup and orange peels becomes tender. Add in sugar, and stir until dissolved. Squeeze the juice of the other orange (I used ½) into the mix, and simmer gently for a couple minutes. Taste, add more sugar if you want or a splash of vinegar or lemon for extra brightness. Let this cool. Spoon the syrup over the cake when serving it, after cutting into it, topping with a blood orange slice.

Blood Orange Negroni

1 ounce gin

1/2 ounce Campari

1/2 ounce sweet vermouth

1 ounce freshly squeezed blood orange juice

Blood orange slice, and zest

Fill a mixing glass with ice, gin, Campari, vermouth, and blood orange juice. Stir well, or shake, and strain into and ice-filled rocks glass and garnish with a thin slice of blood orange, floating on the top. Rub the rim of the glass with zest.

Yield: 1 cocktail

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home,

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