For cooking purposes, oranges are pretty much interchangeable, though there are subtle differences. Valencias and navels are the most common varieties, but at this time of year you can also find pink Cara Caras and sweet Minneola tangelos (also called Honeybells), a cross between a tangerine and a grapefruit. Blood oranges, my all-time favorite, are mellow, meaty, and slightly tart, with a red flesh that glistens like rubies. They make the best orange juice ever.
After being cultivated for thousands of years in Southeast Asia, oranges arrived in southern Italy and Spain with the help of Arab traders, and were introduced by Columbus to the New World. Oranges thrive in warm climates but need a cool snap to turn their signature color; in warm weather, their skins remain green. Moisture also affects their skin; dry climates such as California's produce thicker-skinned oranges than do humid ones, such as Florida's.
Oranges' rarity made them a luxury among European royalty for many centuries. In 1529 the Archbishop of Milan held an extravagant dinner to flaunt his profusion of fruit. The meal kicked off with a mind-boggling combination of caviar and oranges fried with sugar and cinnamon, followed by brill and sardines with slices of orange, oysters with peppers and oranges, sturgeon in aspic covered with orange juice, fried sparrows with oranges, salads with citrons, orange fritters, and a soufflé with raisins and pine nuts covered with sugar and orange juice...among other things.
The guests were duly impressed. News of the meal spread, and was noted in exquisite detail in cookbooks of that time. But I can't help wondering if those overindulged Milanese grandees really enjoyed their 16-course feast of oranges half as much as I did the single gold fruit that brightened my Christmas mornings so many years ago.
Moira Hodgson is the author of the memoir It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, published by Nan A. Talese.
Get the recipes:
A meal to celebrate winter's tastiest fruit