Like its name implies, the fruit also harbors a sinister past. Desperate growers reportedly injected dye into regular oranges.
It’s late fall when one of the most underrated citrus fruits makes its annual appearance. Stroll down the produce aisle at Bristol Farms in Palm Desert and you’ll see bottles of its deep-purple juice, a sweet temptation for the adventuresome. By holiday season bartenders are crushing the fruit to punch up their artisan cocktails. Come February, all bets are off. Blood oranges take over seasonal menus and claim their space in markets. These sweetly acidic, vaguely bitter, strangely colored fruits have a riveting story.
The blood orange’s tantalizing, highly pigmented color is likely the result of a genetic mutation that first occurred centuries ago in the orange’s native China and then mysteriously recurred in the Mediterranean. Like its name implies, this fruit also harbors a slightly sinister past. Desperate growers in the 19th century reportedly injected dye into regular oranges to pass them off as exotic bloods. Once liberated from such chicanery, the fruit found its way to open-air markets in Europe. From there, bloods migrated to the States, where purveyors lured buyers simply by trilling the names of its nonnative strains: Moro, Tarocco, Sanguinello, Maltese…
As romantic as these names sound, you won’t find them being bandied about by desert growers. Blood oranges are not grown commercially in the Coachella Valley, because they need a more substantial winter chill to express their anthocyanin pigmentation. There exists a selection of the Tarocco variety now known for its apparent adaptation to desert conditions: Thermal Tarocco. The University of California Riverside Citrus Variety Collection, founded in 1910, maintains the plant for its ability to adapt to a more arid climate. The space holds the largest citrus collection in the nation with more than 1,000 varieties of fruit.
“The UCR Citrus Variety Collection is a crucial resource for research and breeding of new varieties,” says Tracy L. Khan, collection curator and endowed chair of the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at UCR. That an adaptive blood variety may be found among the vast collection is good news. The not-so-good news is that Thermal Tarocco isn’t exactly dependable when it comes to exhibiting that lush, ultra-pigmented pulp when it’s grown under warm-winter conditions.
So, what does this mean for residents who favor farmers’ markets and prefer to shop for locally sourced products? If you’re after a native blood, you’re out of luck. For those willing to make an exception, head to the major grocery stores this month and next. There you will find many shining towers of blood orange imports. Some are grown outside our local grow zone while some are imported from abroad.
But buyer beware. Things may get a bit prickly (and we’re not talking about the Tarocco’s excessively thorny tree). Selecting the right one — a blood that dazzles taste buds with its perfect balance of sweetness, bitterness, and acidity — can prove challenging. So says David Karp, an international pomologist and researcher affiliated with UCR.
“The best bloods often have flesh that is either medium burgundy in color or lightly streaked with red,” he says. You may find yourself fooled when it comes to making the perfect choice. Despite popular assumption, a purple skin tinged with a hint of orange isn’t your best bet. “Super-dark Moro can be winy and delicious, but later in the season they may be overmature, at which point they have lost so much acidity that they taste flat. Overly ripe Moros also tend to develop an unpleasant aroma.”
Once you score your bag, exercise restraint. That’s the uniform expert advice. Troll through blogs or binge-watch the Food Network and you’ll discover that most culinary superstars advocate simplicity. Peeled and enjoyed out of hand is always a winner. A blood orange can be an amazing base for a understated sorbet (add a hint of Champagne for decadence). Or it can be tossed with your favorite greens for a starter salad (pair with shaved fennel and a salty cheese, such as ricotta salata
A glance at local restaurant menus and it’s clear desert-dwelling chefs and mixologists agree that simple preparations are the way to go. To wit: dish Creative Cuisine chef and owner Joane Garcia-Colson serves up an easy yet delectable burrata and blood orange salad.
“When it comes to blood oranges, less is more,” says Garcia-Colson. “Our goal is to highlight their flavor, the rich bright orange taste with that hint of berries. To that end, we tend to use them in preparations that are fairly simple.” This year, she chose to play that mix of sweetness and acidity off the richness of a creamy burrata cheese. Drizzled with coriander-lavender-garlic vinaigrette, it’s a sure crowd pleaser — and the perfect prelude to a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner.
For those who prefer to drink their bloods, the Purple Palm at the Colony Palms Hotel has a blood orange delight of its own: the Rio Rita. It has become a favorite poolside as well as in the dining room. Fresh blood orange puree replaces triple sec or Cointreau, providing an exotic sweetness.
Whether you’re sipping your citrus or taking a bite from its meat, savor the seasonal goodness of winter’s most beguiling fruit.
Burrata with Sliced Blood Oranges and
Chef Joane Garcia-Colson, dish Creative Cuisine
4 ounces burrata
1 blood orange
8 tablespoons olive oil
3 teaspoons salt
5 teaspoons honey
2 ½ teaspoons dried lavender
2 small cloves garlic, blanched and crushed
1 pinch ground white pepper
3 tablespoons coriander seeds, toasted
To prep the blood orange, cut off its top and bottom. Following the contours of the fruit, use a sharp knife to remove the skin and pith. Slice into ¼-inch pieces. Place in a shallow container, cover, and chill until ready to use.
Place the oil in a small saucepan and add honey, lavender, crushed garlic, and salt. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Once the mixture comes to a simmer, remove it from the heat. Stir well and set aside until completely cooled. Once cooled, add the coriander seeds and ground white pepper.
To Serve: Place the burrata on a plate. Arrange the blood orange slices in a half moon next to the burrata. Drizzle the dressing over the oranges and spoon a little on top of the burrata. Serve with a warm toasted baguette.
The Purple Palm, Colony Palms Hotel
Build in small shaker
3 ounces 100 percent blue agave white tequila
¾ ounce fresh blood orange puree
1 ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce agave nectar
Ghost Pepper Salt, for garnish
Lime wheel, for garnish
Apply Ghost Pepper Salt to the rim of a martini glass. Combine all other ingredients in a small shaker. Shake with ice and strain into the glass. Garnish with a lime wheel.