For a long time, the smell of oranges brought forth memories of mercilessly frigid January nights with bright stars twinkling in clusters and finding their sparkle mirrored in a distorted symmetry of snow crystals underneath. I remember icy winds from the north slapping my cheeks and pinching gloveless fingers while every tiny hair on my face was frozen and covered with a thin layer of ice. January is cruel in Serbia, bringing on its wings unrelenting cold that turns everything to an ice statue. Light and dry snow muffles all the sounds and when you walk, your boots make scrunching noises that break the ominous whining of the trees bending in an effort to release their branches from the deadly embrace of ice.
On those nights the fruit bowl stationed to the right of the kitchen sink contained nothing but citrus. Thin-skinned lemons ended up cut up and squeezed in big cups of hot tea sweetened with honey that awaited us when we returned home from school, our noses running from the cold, our cheeks flushed. Instead of chocolates and candy that visitors usually brought throughout the year, there were bags of oranges from the port town of Jaffa in Israel.
Mother would place a bowl of oranges in front of Deda-Ljubo and he would unfold the Swiss-army knife that he meticulously sharpened every morning and cut through the skin, sending the heady aroma all over the room and making us appear from our hidden corners, ready to bite into juicy fruit. Those oranges were sweet, with very few seeds, and thin white pith. It might have been just a mirage of childhood, but I have been searching in vain for those oranges ever since.
In the late seventies, grapefruits became fashionable, and I learned to love their bitter-sweet taste. And then the mandarins from Montenegro appeared, easy to peel, soft, and bursting with fresh flavor. But it was not until I arrived to California that I felt as if I were thrown smack in the middle of a citrus family reunion. There were huge pomelos with thick skin hiding pinkish flesh, round and sweet Meyer lemons perfect for preserving, Ojai pixie tangerines whose short season made them sought out and coveted by aficionados, tiny kumquats that once brought me a decisive victory in Scrabble!, and more orange varieties than I could number on my fingers.
A few weeks back a group of food bloggers from the area had a chance to tour Melissa’s Produce warehouse in Vernon, California. We had an amazing vegetarian spread for lunch, featuring all the seasonal produce Melissa’s proudly carries and distributes throughout the country, and not one omnivore in the bunch complained for the lack of animal protein. We donned dorky hair nets and strolled around the warehouse, observing and learning, listening to every word our charming and knowledgeable host Robert Schueller uttered. And then he challenged us to identify ten ingredients he placed on a table, promising a prize for the most right guesses. After I managed to guess only three and with a great effort, I humbly admitted to myself that my knowledge of the world of produce is extremely superficial.
I found out that I have not met even a half of the cousins at the citrus family reunion: there was sweet cocktail grapefruit completely void of bitterness; juicy Cara Cara orange; Satsuma mandarin; hydra-shaped Buddha’s hand; wrinkly-skinned desert gold mandarin; easy to peel honey tangerine; kaffir limes with their brain-looking skin; Kishu mandarins fresh off the boat from Korea; and finger lime hiding a myriad of opalescent beads with a stunning burst of flavor in its nondescript green pod (at 50 cents a piece, these “legumes” can march along truffles and caviar as the world’s most expensive food per ounce).
It is an understatement when I declare that I was thoroughly overwhelmed. My head was spinning from all the shades of yellow, orange, and green, while the aroma was filling the spacious and modern kitchen that we all wished would miraculously transport to our own homes. I felt humbled by the nature’s bounty and grateful for a chance to experience the abundance that is offered to a human being in a developed country. And when I left, my burlap bag filled with different products found at Melissa’s, I vowed to look at the world of produce with different eyes and from a different perspective.
February is the month that brings us blood oranges. A few days ago I found some at our local Persian store and I plopped several of them in my basket. To me, they are the sexiest citrus fruit, promising lusciousness with its red-speckled skin. Once you slice through, the flesh appears in different hues of magenta, red, and maroon, glistening with juice. These oranges offer not only beautifully shaded cross-sections, but also the juices both abundant and sweet.
I don’t have a habit of eating salads as meals, but as I was plating my greens and layering them with beets, segments of blood oranges, toasted pine nuts, crumbled feta cheese, slivers of thinly sliced onions, and slices of cucumbers, all sprinkled with a zesty tarragon vinaigrette, I could not wait to sample this colorful dish and savor the flavors in every forkful. It was as satisfying as I thought it would be.
I scraped the last of the arugula off the plate as I was finishing a Skype conversation with my sister in Frankfurt, Germany, who was getting ready to go to bed, already grumpy at the thought of riding her bike to work at seriously sub zero temperatures. January is at its fiercest in some parts of Europe and the concrete is crackling under the attack of ice. The sun is out in all its splendor, but its rays do not reach the Earth and its glow is completely void of warmth. But I know that somewhere in my sister’s kitchen there is a bowl of citrus, each round piece of fruit ready to ward off the frigid fingers of January and bring sunshine into dreary and grey days.
SALAD WITH BLOOD ORANGES AND ROASTED BEETS
This salad is very versatile and the ingredients can be varied. You can use goat cheese instead of feta, red onions instead of scallions, pecans or walnuts, even hazelnuts instead of pine nuts, and golden beets would add a nice contrast of color.
- a few big handfuls of mixed salad greens, torn into pieces if too large
- 1 blood orange, peeled, separated into segments, white skin removed
- 1 medium beet, roasted and cut into pieces*
- 1 chunk of feta cheese (2×2 inches), crumbled
- 2 Tbsp pine nuts, toasted**
- 3-4 scallions, diced
- 1 small cucumber, sliced thinly
- 2 Tbsp Tarragon vinegar (you can use any flavorful vinegar you like)
- ½ tsp sea salt
- ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- ½ tsp dried Italian seasoning or Herbes de Provence
- ¼ cup good quality olive oil
**place the pine nuts into a non-stick pan and toast for 2-3 minutes on medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally until golden brown
Place the lettuces on a plate and top with orange segments, beet chunks, cucumber slices, crumbled cheese, scallions, and toasted pine nuts.
Pour all the dressing ingredients into a glass jar, put the lid on it tightly and shake for 20-30 seconds until combined. Pour over the salad and serve.
Last year at this time I wrote about my dad and a recipe for Ligurian Fish Stew.