Sicily’s Signature Orange

Starting with the weather, a thousand things might make this more or less true, but now is the time to be buying, cooking with and devouring the darkest-fleshed blood oranges you can get your happy hands on. The same substance that gives the interior flesh its exotic color delivers a bundle of health benefits while it’s in our neighborhood.

And while this particular type of citrus fruit is new to some in this country, it’s been treasured by many in Sicily since the Arabs first started bringing citrus to the island from North Africa in the 9th century. Oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes look a little boring by comparison, so even the original growers realized they could charge more for their unusual fruit.

From Sicily, blood oranges spread to anyplace that any citrus was successful, which places it mostly along the Mediterranean shore. Add the cultural component – that citrus was familiar to Arabs long before it was to Europeans – and you get the picture. Blood oranges can grow in many places along the Mediterranean but are most established in the two areas occupied the longest by Arabs. That means Sicily with its Saracens and Spain with its Moors.

Spain, in fact, did the world the huge favor of exporting citrus to the New World, primarily to its colonial holdings here. That meant California (now the largest producer of blood oranges in our country) and Florida, with another small but much-appreciated crop hailing from the Rio Grande Valley of far south Texas. That last seems only fair, since the same area delivers its own signature Ruby Red grapefruit to the world each winter as well.

It’s probably reassuring to some that, for all its exotic look and potentially off-putting reference to blood (sangre in Spanish, sangue in Italian), blood oranges taste and behave virtually the same as – well, oranges. You know, the ones that go by names like Seville and naval. What they possess is an extra shot of anthrocynanin that, starting on the outer edges of the flesh and working its way slowly in, gives the blood orange its distinctive color.

Two things are true about anthrocyanin. The first is that it’s more common than we probably are aware, since its color-gifting power also explains why blueberries are blue. The second is that it’s been identified as a highly effective antioxidant. That means it has a special way of battling the development of cancer cells, which might for some by all the endorsement it needs. The fruit has also been shown to fight heart disease and help with certain eye disorders.

As a result, while the flesh color of blood oranges can certainly vary, from purple-red down to almost your basic orange, the darker and redder it is, the better. Blood oranges might be just the thing if you want to be cancer free, with a very healthy heart and terrific vision – the better to help you “see red,” my dear.

SICILIAN BLOOD ORANGE FISH

Here is one of our favorite recipes showcasing the blood oranges than typically start showing up in produce sections in December and can continue into April or even May. The flesh itself is both sweet and tart, but here we underline the “sweet/sour” element loved in Italy (agrodolce) and especially in Sicily by adding both sugar and red wine vinegar.

Sauce:

1 cup blood orange juice

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 tablespoon Fischer & Wieser Blood Orange Cinnamon Preserves

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1 cup blood orange flesh, sliced

½ red onion, thinly sliced

Salt and pepper

Fish:

4 (6-ounce) thick halibut or cod fillets

Kosher salt

Black pepper

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

In a pot or pan, combine the blood orange juice with the lemon juice, lime juice, preserves, vinegar and thyme. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until syrupy, stirring to liquify the preserves, about 5 minutes. Add the blood orange flesh and red onions and simmer 2 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

To cook the fish, season generously with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a pan until almost smoking, then carefully add the seasoned fillets. Cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes on the first side, then gently flip (being careful not the break up the fillet), about 3 minutes more. Drain of oil as much as possible when transferring each filler to a dinner plate. Top the fish with the blood orange pieces and sauce. Serves 4.

Serving suggestion: we especially like this dish with roasted potatoes and green peas.

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