Farmers’ markets aside, an awful lot of produce isn’t what it used to be–either for vitamins or flavor. Anytime you get to major mass production and long storage times, you know the result is going to be a product that looks like fresh fruit or vegetables but the smell, taste and texture are really missing. Kind of like the long-stemmed red roses bred to last for the Valentine’s Day bouquets–pretty, hardy as hell, but with almost no perfume at all.
Case in point: the Cutie ™ seedless tangerine. About two weeks ago I bought a 3-lb. bag of these things for a congregational hike and Tu Bi’Shevat ceremony in honor of the New Year of Trees, usually in January around the time when almond trees are in blossom in Israel (and California, though that’s a little less official).
The ceremony, other than the basic blessings for the gift of trees and their fruit, is kabbalistic in origin and involves celebrating the different kinds of fruit and tree nuts as a metaphor for different levels of openness and freedom in the soul. Some fruits have a hard stone at their core, others an inedible peel or shell, and the most open and enlightened are fully edible. A full-out Tu Bi’Shevat seder includes a selection of these fruits and nuts in progression from least to most edible, along with four cups of wine or grape juice mixed in four combinations from white to red (or is it the other way around?) to symbolize the approach of spring among other things. I’m not a kabbalist (my family were always “misnageders” or skeptics/rationalists rather than Hasidim) but I can appreciate the poetry of the Tu Bi’Shvat seder.
My family, skeptical or not, also always appreciated a good geschichte (shaggy dog story, preferably minus the actual dog and its hair). So I’m painfully aware you may not think you’ve been hearing enough about Cuties for the past few minutes to make this worth your while. I’m trying here.
My husband came back from the hike with at least half the bag of Cuties uneaten, so I put them in a bowl on the counter and started serving them, hoping to use them up before they went rotten. Because I’m not sure a seedless rotten tangerine is an improvement on the regular kind. Also because our neighbors with a satsuma tree (seeded) had just gifted my daughter with a bag of those. Out here in LA, tangerines are the winter version of zucchini.
Cuties are little and orange and shiny and really easy to peel. Perfect, right? The trouble was, the Cuties had almost no taste. At all. Insipid doesn’t even begin to dismiss the little flavor they had. They had juice, so that wasn’t it. They had some sweetness, but I don’t usually like tangerines screamingly sweet. What they were really missing was the tang. Without that, they’re not tangerines. Or at least not ones worth eating.
Two or more pounds of nothing in orange jumpsuits, sitting neatly on my counter. Feh. It was starting to sound like the flavorless peach story. Why do people breed all the flavor out? Why do people buy them? What’s wrong with us that we no longer like our tangerines tangy?
Time to do something different. So I peeled 5 or 6 of the little suckers, threw on a tablespoon or so of sugar and a drizzle of water, and juiced a lemon over the sections. Also reached into the freezer, where I save the shells of organic lemons after I squeeze out the juice–the frozen halves make it easy to grate a little lemon rind into a cheese sauce or spinach or almond macaroon dough or the like. I took a mostly-used rind and threw it into the bowl with the tangerine sections and covered the bowl and microwaved it for 4 minutes on HIGH.
Maybe it’s because I left the membranes on (who’s going to go around peeling individual Cutie sections? Of course you could if you really believe that makes all the difference, be my guest), but the sections weren’t cooked to death, and they’d taken up a considerable amount of the lemon flavor. Between the lemon juice and the additional piece of rind the tangerines came out tasting more like the real thing.
What are they good for, once you’ve cooked them up like that? They were too juicy to be a marmalade, and of course you couldn’t eat them out of hand anymore (though with a spoon, maybe). We’ll have to call it a compote, I guess. Eat with a dollop of plain yogurt that’s been flavored with a spoonful of red wine vinegar, a pinch or two of curry powder, and a spoonful of sugar. Or drain the sections and toss them in a simple green salad and serve it with vinaigrette or mustard/yogurt dressing. Or add a few drops of orange blossom water to the juices and let the sections macerate for a while in the fridge, then drain and mix with olives, red onion, lettuces and red bell pepper.
Or the orange blossom water and a pinch of cardamom, clove and/or cinnamon, and serve them alongside a slice of pistachio (or walnut) baklava. Maybe pistachio ice cream or dark chocolate sorbet. Or gulab jamun (preferably served hot). Winter is brightening up already.