(Our first guest blogger. Welcome, Karen. -JM)
One night last week I went out to the front yard to pick some oranges for the polenta topping, and the scent of rain on citrus brought me a sharp memory: my father in the back orchard tending his trees. Though he had an embattled attitude toward the world and was a certified curmudgeon where humans were concerned, he loved his trees. He grew plums, cherries, apples, loquats, kumquats, lemons and oranges, not to mention the hundreds of seedling Blue Spruce that were part of his crackpot scheme to create more forests in northern California. Because of his specially fierce kinship with the fruit trees, it did not seem odd to us that he named them. It actually seemed logical, and so did the fact that the names were always feminine. Susan the avocado tree was the orchard’s grande dame, the first tree he planted when the house was built in the mid-fifties. He often went out to the orchard to visit her specifically. How he grieved when he thought the ‘66 squall had toppled her! Susan though turned out to be not just prolific of avocadoes but a real trouper: she may have developed a crouch after the storm, but she rallied. Her trunk, now bent almost sideways, formed a cave of leaves that gave my sister and me a new place to play, a new place to hide from our parents. Susan was one of a mini-grove of trees producing so much fruit in early spring that we were constantly giving it away to neighbors, friends and teachers, and once, a very surprised Fuller Brush man.
Most productive of all were the Valencia orange trees, which sometimes gave us fruit as early as February. Valencia has oftentimes been the default variety in California’s history, almost emblematic, and has provided the economy continuous gold greater than the brief rush that nicknamed Cali the Golden State. I always thought Steinbeck had Valencias in mind for his scene in The Grapes of Wrath in which corporate farmers douse oranges with kerosene while starving migrant workers look on. In any case, Valencia the icon is also a great juicer. Every year of my childhood found us hauling bags of the gleaming oranges into the kitchen, cutting them in half, squeezing the juice into the square glass pitcher, the floor a pulpy pesto. Each glass of the stuff had more ritual in it than holy water.
Home orchard Valencias make delightfully tart juice, plus orange curd to top scones or toast, or fill tartlet shells. Here is an all-purpose recipe for citrus curd that I developed after failing to make a few other curd recipes work for me. The secret is to keep the whisk moving very slowly.
½ cup freshly reamed citrus juice (Meyer lemon, Valencia orange and Tarocco blood orange are particularly good)
scant ½ cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 cube (¼ pound) unsalted butter, cut in 4 chunks
Combine juice and sugar in heavy-bottomed pan. I use an old enameled cast iron pot, but a heavy steel pot will work fine too, or you can use a double boiler and cook the curd over boiling water if you do not have a solidly heavy pot. Whisk in the eggs and turn on the flame to low. Keep the whisk moving slowly so the eggs have no chance to scramble.
Add one chunk of butter and keep whisking. When the chunk starts to look a little raggedy, add another chunk. Keep adding another chunk as each previous one starts to move through the raggedy stage to the melting stage. Keep the whisk moving slowly all the while. When all 4 chunks of butter have melted, whisk for about 5 minutes more, until the curd thickens and coats the back of a spoon. Every citrus fruit is unique, so getting to the spoon-coating stage may actually take between 4 and 7 minutes. Keep whisking and watching. Do not overcook.
Remove from the heat and immediately strain the curd into a small bowl. Stir every 10 minutes or so for about half an hour, to stop the curd from forming a skin. When cooled to room temperature, the curd may be refrigerated in the bowl, or you may want to pour it into an 8-ounce canning jar. The refrigerated curd will last at least 2 weeks. This recipe yields one cup plus a few extra teaspoons (for the cook’s immediate gratification).
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Making citrus salad dressing is another grand way to use up the bounty of winter citrus. You can personalize the basic recipe by adding herbs or seeds after the main ingredients are thrown together.
Enough fruit to yield ⅓ cup of juice. This will be somewhere around ¾ of a pound, but each variety is unique, so you will have to experiment. Valencia orange, Tarocco blood orange, and Meyer lemon work wonderfully. Texas White grapefruit, tangerine and key limes are also tasty choices.
Scant ½ vegetable oil. I use half olive oil and half vegetable oil such as corn oil, because to my taste buds, straight olive oil overpowers the delicacy of fresh citrus.
1 Tablespoon rice vinegar, white or brown
1 Tablespoons honey or 1-2 T cane sugar—adjust this amount according to the tartness of the fruit. You can substitute molasses if you like a denser, smokier dressing, or maple syrup.
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional “accessories”: lightly toasted poppy or cumin seeds, or 1-2 Tablespoons grated ginger, or 2 cloves chopped garlic, or any combination of the above which sounds good. I love the orange-cumin connection, and lemons and poppy seeds seem to have a natural affinity for each other. Experiment!
First, zest the citrus and set it aside. Next, ream enough oranges or other citrus to make ⅓ cup of juice, and put into a medium bowl. Some people insist on straining the juice but I think the little bits of pulp add character and body to the finished product.
Add the oil in a slow stream, whisking until all is incorporated with the juice. Whisk in rice vinegar and honey or sugar or other sweetener. Grind in some fresh pepper and salt to taste. Add fresh zest and whisk. Add items from the optional list above, or add your own touches—chopped fresh parsley, cilantro and chives all complement citrus.