I ate my first orange of the season this morning, the first one I’ve had since March. The fruit plate at breakfast In New Mexico has been full of melons: I know they can’t be seasonal — not watermelon anyway. Today I turned first to the stewed prunes. I had two, but they were cold. Then I saw oranges in the fruit bowl and went up to investigate. The first orange was large. sporting a blue and white label: I squinted and read “Australia.” I put it back, but now I wanted an orange. I found a small one with no sticker. I took it, hoping it had been trucked no further than California where I live, two states away.
Taking it back to the table I peeled it with my fingernails and then used a knife to get under the thick white pith, losing a little juice as the knife pierced the flesh. Wiping my hands on my napkin, I removed the navel and separated the first segment from the broken halves.
It tasted like sunshine: winter sunshine — a little sweet, acid, radiant in my mouth. I understood for the first time how my mother felt in Canada and Illinois when she got an orange in her Christmas stocking: how wonderful it must have tasted in the dead of winter when they were rare.
Mom has never lost her taste for oranges. We argue about them. She wants them in August and September when it is not orange season. I remind her that in January, February and March we will be inundated with citrus: I spend March making tangerine curd to eat on angel food cake, devising citrus dressings for salads, drying and candying citrus peels. We make Swedish rye bread in the winter with orange zest and fresh juice.
When Mom moved to California in 1944 she said you could buy oranges everywhere: from roadside stands, from trucks on San Pablo Avenue. She bought an orange juicer — not an electric thing, but a press with a screen and long handles: you bring the handles together and squeeze halved oranges or lemons between metal plates. The screen catches the seeds and the juice falls into a reservoir below with a pouring spout. It does not work well if you have removed the peel for zest or candying — it was designed for halved citrus, squeezed whole.
I have never been partial to the standard American trio: apples, oranges and bananas, sitting on the counter year-round and incorporated into every fruit salad and lunch box. I eat apples in season, drying them for the winter and giving them up when they come from cold storage. I like oranges when I am hiking and fresh food is scarce, or when, like this morning, I take a walk in thawing snow: I walked to town to get a coffee, walked back in time for morning meditation, craved fruit at breakfast. The orange tasted like lost gold recovered, what explorers had been looking for as they sailed around the world.
Oh, you’ll want a recipe. Alright. This is how to candy citrus peel: orange, lime, tangerine, lemon, or grapefruit. I started doing this when I got interested in using the whole fruit: if I’m not zesting citrus fruit there is all of that peel left over — why not turn it into winter sweets? Home-candied peel bears no resemblance to that nasty glaceed mixed fruit you find in the store. I chop candied peel into breakfast muffins, use it in orange French toast, or eat it straight out of the jar when there are no sweets in the house and I want a little something. Sometimes I save mixed citrus peels in a bag in the freezer: when I have a lot, I take them out and candy them all at once. It’s best to use organically-grown fruit for edible peel, but if you only have commercially-grown citrus available, be sure to wash it with dishwashing liquid and water, rinse it and dry it before peeling so that you are not ingesting any unwanted chemicals.
Here’s what you do. Peel a lot of citrus fruit or take your bag of saved peels from the freezer. You can candy several types at once — you don’t need to separate them. If you are peeling fresh fruit, score the peel into quarters with a knife: this makes it easier to peel.
Place your peels in a large saucepan of cold water: you want 2 cups of water per eight limes or lemons, six tangerines or oranges, or three grapefruit. Bring peels to rolling boil. Drain them. Start again with cold water. Repeat. The thicker the peel, the more times you should blanch it — grapefruit peel takes at least four times,
Cool the peels and scrape the white pith from them with a knife or the side of a spoon, being careful not to break the peel — if it breaks, you can’t brag about it, but it is no tragedy — you’ll just have some smaller pieces. Cut the peels into strips.
Now return the peels to your saucepan with equal amounts of sugar and water — say 2 cups each. Bring to a simmer and cook without stirring until peel is translucent. This takes about an hour. If you are a thermometer-wielding type. Alice Medrich says to get the syrup to between 220 and 222 degrees.
Remove peel with slotted spoon and cool in a single layer on a rack over a baking sheet (the peel will drip for awhile). We set ours in our oven overnight. When peel is dry, dredge it in sugar and store it in sugar in a glass jar in your refrigerator. If you make enough it will last you until citrus comes in again the following year. It makes great gifts, too. People have been known to dip it in chocolate or caramel.