Duck a L'Orange
Photo: John Kernick
It's hard to imagine a child these days sighing with pleasure when she receives a piece of fruit on Christmas morning. But when I was growing up in England in the 1950s, oranges were a delicacy rare enough to be delivered by Santa himself. I'd wake at dawn to find a bulging stocking (actually one of my father's socks) hanging at the foot of my bed. I'd rip open the presents inside it as quickly as I could, piling the blanket with torn wrapping paper. At last, my hand would feel a familiar lump at the bottom of the sock: an orange. I'd take it into my parents' bedroom and ask my bleary-eyed father to cut a hole in the top. Then I'd poke in a sugar cube and suck out the juice.

That was my favorite way to eat an orange until the year I turned 12 and sailed halfway around the world with my family on an ocean liner. On the ship's menu, I encountered an item that captured my imagination: "Savage Orange Duck." The ship's menu had hilariously been mistranslated from French into English; sauvage actually means "wild," and referred to the duck, not the dish. The waiter set down half a roast duck surrounded by glazed orange slices, and spooned a deep-mahogany-colored sauce on top. When I bit into the duck, it was soft and sweet under its crisp, lacquered skin, and the sauce was like a heavenly caramel, with the oranges and their bitter peel acting as a foil to the richness. I had never come across anything like this before, and I never forgot it.

Get cooking with O's zesty orange menu

Many years later, grown-up and living in Greenwich Village, I decided to tackle "Savage Orange Duck" myself. My mother had given me a copy of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In those days my friends and I were rather competitive about our cooking, and so, undaunted by my closet-sized kitchen, I followed Julia's duck recipe to the letter, using every pan I owned. "Nothing should interfere with the flavors of the duck, the sauce, and the oranges," she instructed, advising homemade potato chips as the best accompaniment. As I toiled alone in the kitchen, I could hear the laughter of my friends at the table down the hall. The orange duck was glorious, but I knew I wouldn't make it very often.

A couple of weeks later, my friend Elizabeth served a dish she'd discovered during a summer in France: lamb with orange and rosemary. Not to be outdone, I tackled Catalan beef stew with orange peel and olives, and after a holiday in Yucatán, a whole red snapper baked on a bed of oranges. Soon I was using oranges in all sorts of exotic ways: sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and slivers of aged ricotta cheese; as a sweet-sour accent to spicy stir-fried beef. I discovered that oranges made festive, splashy desserts too, whether paired with dark chocolate or clear, sparkling wine in citrus terrine (a sophisticated twist on Mom's fruit Jell-O).