Duck a L'Orange
Photo: John Kernick
Their glossy skin and bright-as-sunshine taste enchanted Persian poets, bewitched Renaissance kings, and captivated a certain English girl at sea aboard an ocean liner. But in case oranges' familiar charms are lost on world-weary you, consider their impeccable timing: Just as the year enters its darkest phase, along come bushels of these golden globes to invigorate our taste buds and add zest to our meals. Savage orange duck, anyone?
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).

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.

Oranges Get the recipes:
A meal to celebrate winter's tastiest fruit


Next Story