A few weeks ago, I ran across a food article by Amanda Hesser, in which she recounted her recent experience of being served a green salad with red onions, Greek olives, and oranges in it. What struck me was the way she fumed at length over having missed out for so long on this simple culinary classic.
I grew up in a Jewish household in the early 1970s, at about the time when felafel and hummus and tabouleh started making their way west into American Jewish cooking. These, along with pita, tomato-cucumber-pepper type salads and eggplant everything, were part of the larger Jewish cultural revival after the Six-Day War. Jewish cookbooks started embracing the Lebanese, Sephardic, North African, and Persian influences on Israeli food as a complement to the more familiar Ashkenazi fare. Orange salads just seemed to fit in.
In any case, orange salads have been published in Jewish and Mediterranean-leaning cookbooks for at least 25 years–notably Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, one of my first cookbook purchases once I came back from my own year as a kibbutz volunteer.
Three orange salads
The simplest orange salad I make is a basic green salad with oranges rather than tomatoes, and it goes well with oil-and-vinegar or mustard vinaigrette. Another, more of a fruit salad, is orange and/or grapefruit segments or slices mixed with a dressing of a cup of yogurt, a spoonful of ordinary red wine vinegar, a spoonful of sugar, and curry powder to taste, maybe half a teaspoon or so, enough to make it yellow-orange and aromatic, not enough to be bitter.
Another more elegant take on the green salad is something I made a few times in my early cooking days for buffet lunches at my synagogue–orange slices sprinkled sparingly with orange blossom water and a grinding of cardamom, laid down in overlapping rows on a bed of vinaigrette-dressed romaine in a tray, and red onion rings, sliced Kalamata olives, red bell pepper rings, crumbled feta, and chopped fresh basil strewn over the oranges. It was a bit much for serving at home, but it made a beautiful buffet dish, and it always got eaten.
So oranges can serve quite nicely in fresh salads, but what about in hot dishes? There’s the rub.
Orange peel I have no trouble imagining in hot savories–a number of Chinese classics use it (beef with orange peel, etc.), and so does duck à l’orange. Cooked oranges, on the other hand, always disappoint me–somehow the structure collapses, the color fades, and so does the bright acidity. They end up pulpy and stringy and less than half as good as fresh raw pieces would have been. But people persist in cooking with them–so I thought I would give a different Paula Wolfert cookbook a try.
The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for the Passionate Cook
(2003) features one really unusual orange-based savory: an Algerian Jewish sweet-and-sour compote of artichoke hearts and orange sections glazed in orange juice. With garlic and olive oil. Hard to imagine–does garlic go with oranges?–but so close to my standard marinated artichoke hearts, at least theoretically, that I decided to chance it and see.Here’s the ingredient list for her version:
Artichoke and Orange Compote
- 1 1/2 lemons
- 4 large artichokes
- 2 T extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, sliced
- 1/3 c fresh orange juice
- 1 t salt
- 1/2 t freshly ground pepper
- 2 thin-skinned oranges, peeled and sectioned
- pinch of ground coriander
- 1 T sugar
- 4 sprigs of mint
(From: The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen (2003) by Paula Wolfert, p. 45)
The first thing to notice about Paula Wolfert’s recipe is that it, like most of her recipes, is scrupulously traditional and involves a lot of hand labor. You start with four globe artichokes, trim all the leaves away, get rid of the choke and the thorny top edge of the leaves, quarter the artichoke hearts, rub with a cut lemon, drop in lemon water, and then simmer with the juice of an orange and a lemon, a full teaspoon of salt, some olive oil, a little water, and two sliced cloves of garlic for 45 minutes. The setup involves wet crumpled parchment paper on top of the simmering vegetables. Meanwhile you segment the oranges–very pretty but very labor-intensive–and glaze them for 10 minutes with a few spoonfuls of orange juice and a pinch of coriander and a tablespoon of sugar. Then you turn them out of the pan, drain and turn the artichokes in that pan, take them out and boil down the artichoke cooking liquid to another glaze to toss with the cooked oranges and artichoke hearts.
I decided to skip a few steps ahead. First of all, I used a full 12-oz bag of plain frozen Trader Joe’s artichoke heart quarters. A lot less trimming and waste, and at least half a lemon saved. And a lot more artichoke for the money: 16 frozen quarters is only about a cup, but the full bag is about 2.5 times that. If it’s worth making at all, it’s worth making enough.
Next, the lemon/orange/garlic/salt ratios. Long cooking breaks down the acidity of lemon so you need more–many Indian recipes, for example, advise adding lemon juice only at the end so the flavor doesn’t dissipate. But I was going to microwave the artichoke hearts for 4 minutes covered instead of boiling them for 45. So I decided I didn’t need to double the orange or lemon juice just because I was doubling the amount of artichoke, and I certainly didn’t need to add water. I decided to do the world a favor and not double the garlic, either. And salt? I usually marinate artichokes with at most a quarter-teaspoon of salt, probably less, so I couldn’t imagine how a full teaspoon would be. I left it at my usual proportions and was glad I had once I tasted it. And I didn’t need crumpled parchment paper either.
The oranges–I thought maybe Wolfert knows something I don’t here. Maybe if you glaze them in a syrup they won’t wilt and be disappointing? I sliced two medium-large peeled oranges into quarter rounds, because segmenting is for restaurants, and I tried to glaze them in a small stainless steel saucepan. Wolfert says 10 minutes. At three minutes I was getting worried because the slices had already lost a lot of juice and frankly, they were doing exactly what I knew they would. Maybe (I am just willing to concede the possibility) cutting them into lengthwise segments would have released less juice, but I’m not convinced that anything would really have helped. I stopped and scooped them out, leaving the juice behind in the saucepan, and when the artichoke hearts were done (encouragingly enough, those tasted pretty good done in orange and lemon juice instead of just lemon), I drained their juices into the saucepan as well, and started boiling the stuff down with a bit of orange and lemon peel in the pan.
The juices left caramelization (less politely known as “scorch”) marks up the sides of the pan, and as the juices concentrated, I washed some of it down–it didn’t hurt the sauce, just turned it slightly brown.
When the glaze was done, there wasn’t much, just a few spoonfuls of thickening caramel syrup. A tart, savory caramel syrup, though, with garlic and artichoke undertones. Surprisingly, very surprisingly, it was good.
When I tossed everything together, it wasn’t nearly as pretty as the picture in The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, but the result was intriguing. It sounds incredibly odd at best, I know, especially if you’ve never tasted anything like it, and I hadn’t, but it was not bad. What can I tell you? Something new.
Microwave-assisted Artichoke and Orange Compote (mine)
- 12-oz bag frozen artichoke heart quarters (TJs or C&W)
- 1 largeish lemon
- 2-3 T extra virgin olive oil
- 1/3 c fresh orange juice (juice of a medium orange)
- 1/4 t salt
- 2 med or 1 large clove garlic minced/grated/mashed
- 1/2 t freshly ground pepper
- 2 thin-skinned oranges, peeled and sliced crosswise in quarter-rounds, rounds, whatever looks nice to you. If you want to do sections, far be it from me to dissuade you. It’s your fingers.
- pinch of ground coriander or a pinch of whole seeds
- heaping teaspoon of sugar
- 4 sprigs of mint for garnish
Place the artichoke hearts, juice of an orange and a lemon, salt, garlic, and olive oil in a pyrex or microwaveable ceramic bowl, cover, and microwave on HIGH 4 minutes. Stir and if not piping hot, recover and nuke again 1 minute, and stir to coat the artichokes.
Pour the juices into a nonreactive saucepan and add a bit of lemon or orange zest, the coriander and the sugar. Boil it down to a few tablespoons of thickening syrup.
Combine the orange slices with the artichoke hearts and pour the syrup over them, stirring lightly to coat. Squeeze a little extra lemon juice on, crack black pepper over it, give it a drizzle of olive oil, and serve warm, room temperature, or cold with mint sprigs for garnish.
That said, Wolfert’s meticulous traditional instructions do nothing to make me change my mind about the value of the microwave. I’m even more grateful I used the microwave and frozen artichoke hearts. I would have been really irritated if I’d spent a full 45 minutes cooking the artichoke hearts after trimming them. I’m also very grateful I went sparingly on the salt, because even a quarter teaspoon was plenty.
I’m kind of divided on the final result. My husband and I both liked the artichoke hearts, and he said the rest wasn’t bad–maybe needs more orange juice, or a sauce with curry powder in it–I was surprised he thought of it, actually. So either more overt coriander/curry flavor or perhaps a mustard/orange juice dressing to tie the artichoke and orange flavors together.
I’m not sure I’d bother again with the orange sections, or at least not with cooking them. Maybe if they’re fresh and raw and added at the last minute, they’ll be bright and sweet and acid enough for a good contrast with the meaty, garlicky artichoke hearts. But as is, I can’t decide whether it’s good and unusual, so-so and unusual, or something like horseradish with haroset–a once-a-year odd combo that you have to suspend disbelief to like.
I can say that the three fresh orange salads at the top of this post are definitely good, any time of year, and require no suspension of anything, except perhaps your suspenders.
Filed under: books, cooking, fruits, history, holiday cooking, Odd food, Revised recipes, sauces and condiments, Vegetabalia | Tagged: Algerian-Jewish cooking, artichoke hearts, Israeli food, Mediterranean diet, North African cooking, oranges, Paula Wolfert, recipes |