Monday, January 17, 2011

ingredient: NAVEL ORANGES

Navel oranges: they’re named after your belly button! How cute! Right? Wrong.

The truth sounds like something out of a horror movie. Or my My Big Fat Greek Wedding. When you eat a navel orange, you are actually eating both the orange and its conjoined twin. That’s right. Those funny little sections that are hiding inside the regular slices of the navel orange are in fact an aborted second fruit. Yikes.

How did this freaky fruit become a supermarket staple? It started circa 1810 when a monk in Bahia, Brazil came upon this mutated fruit and instead of asking what the devil had happened, he rejoiced over a gift from God. His happiness stems from the fact that early oranges were sour, not sweet. These were also the days before genetically modified foods, so every orange segment contained a pack of seeds which made it annoying to eat. This mutated fruit, however, was both seedless and sweet. In other words, it was quite the find.

The problem with a seedless fruit is that it doesn’t reproduce, at least not without a little help from some botanically gifted human friends. So the monk turned to a man named William Saunders from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Saunders helped him reproduce the trees by grafting sprouted buds onto the roots of other mature trees. Grafting is in a sense a form of cloning; because it doesn’t allow for normal genetic mutations, the navel oranges that we eat today are identical to the one that the monk first pulled off the tree in Brazil over two hundred years ago.

I know! I used to think navel oranges were boring too! But who needs pomelos and tangerines and expensive blood oranges when it turns out that navel oranges are so freaking cool? I’m giving these guys a second chance, even if they are named after human kind’s least attractive body part.

And if for some reason you’re still not convinced, I’d like to remind you that just one orange contains over one hundred percent of your daily requirement of vitamin C, which does more than just fend off winter colds, it fights free radicals. (Quick recap about why free-radicals are the worst: they get into your cells and damage its DNA, which can lead to cancer. Places in your body which have rapid cell turn-over, such as your digestive system or lungs, are especially prone to free radical damage.)

Still reaching for those super cute clementines instead? That’s fine, but remember that just one navel orange is as big as a softball and contains no seeds, which means it's super easy to cook with and much easier to eat than any posh pomegranate.

Spinach Salad with Oranges, Black Olives,
Mint, Feta and Red Onion
in a citrus dressing

I hate how stores start to display their spring clothes in January. Here in New York, spring is at least three months away. And as I’m not in a financial position to winter in Cabo, I’ll admit that sometimes I feel like I’d like to take one of those pretty new string bikinis and wrap it around the neck of anyone who is. Why don’t we sell clothes that are appropriate to the same time that we wear them? Why can’t the fashion world just hold their freaking Polo horses?

Oh. Maybe it's for the same reason that by January I start to buy the occasional pint of berries even though I know that they won’t be ripe. Maybe it’s for the same reason that I start sneaking tomatoes into my salad, even though I know that they’ll be tasteless mush. I’m desperate for the change of seasons. I’ve had enough roasted potatoes and hearty winter stews to last me a lifetime. Or at least another nine months.

The smart thing to do when I can’t resist eating summer-tasting food in winter is to turn to citrus fruits. Which is what I did last night, while cranking up the heat and listening to some Buena Vista Social Club. I made this salad, which is one of my favorites to make at home because it’s not boring but it’s not confused (i.e every outcome of those damn mix-your-own-salad places). The sweetness of the orange plays against the saltiness of the feta and the olives. The mint gives a little freshness, as does the citrus dressing. In fact if you have any dressing left over or want to double the recipe, it’s nice over any old salad or steamed veggies. In short, it’s a burst of summer in the middle of winter: refreshing and delicious and light.

So if right now you're also feeling the winter blues, then follow my lead. The clanking of the radiator could almost be steel drums…

Serves four


For the salad:
10 ounces of baby spinach*
½ large red onion, chopped
1 navel orange, peeled, segmented, and each segment roughly cut in third, or to ½ pieces
1 cup black olives (You know. The ones from the can)
½ cup or so chopped feta
1 bunch mint (if you don’t feel like spending money on this, it’s not the end of the world)

For the citrus dressing:

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice (i.e. buy 2 oranges)
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon minced shallot
2 teaspoons white-wine vinegar
A few shakes of salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

*in the pictures I actually used baby lettuces, as it was what I had in my fridge. I like this salad better with baby spinach, but it’s certainly not bad either way.


In a large bowl, put the baby spinach, the red onion, the black olives, and the feta.

To make the dressing:

Put all the ingredients except for the olive oil in a small bowl. Add the olive oil in a stream while whisking to emulsify.

Assemble: Pour the dressing over the salad and toss lightly. Tear a handful of mint leaves off and rip them over the salad. When serving, try to make sure you get all the ingredients on each plate. (The heavier items like the orange tend to fall to the bottom.)

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