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The heady scent of new-crop oranges

Orange peel in syrup with orange blossom flavor

I’ve posted on making impromptu microwaved marmalade before. It works beautifully–5 minutes total!–with sliced kumquats, but I haven’t had as much success with standard navel orange peel–until now. This week my local Trader Joe’s had big bags of organic oranges and when I brought one home I discovered something I’ve never come across before.

It must be the new crop, I think. I don’t have a great sense of smell out here in Los Angeles, but even I can tell something’s really different about these oranges. Southern California is specialty-citrus country, with five or six varieties of tangerines parading through the grocery stores and farmers’ markets all winter long, and beautiful, strange “Buddha’s hand” citrons appearing in December. With all that going on, not to mention the blood oranges and pomelos (which I actually don’t like) and cara caras and key limes and ugli fruit (sumo tangerines, huge and bumpy) and so on and so on, you’d think that ordinary navel oranges would come bottom of the exotica scale. Even if they are organic.

The flesh of these oranges was pretty good but not really remarkable–I actually like them a little tangier and more acidic. But the peel! In addition to the usual bitter-aromatic orange peel scent, the oranges all smelled strongly of orange blossom, even after washing them twice. I didn’t know oranges could smell like orange blossom. The peel even tasted like orange blossom water.

So of course I decided I had to take advantage of this oddity by trying the old microwave marmalade trick and making candied orange peel with them.

Like rose water, orange blossom water or essence often seems to me as though it would be better suited to cosmetics than food flavoring. A little is exotic and mysteriously elegant; a little too much, which could be the difference of a couple of drops, can be distinctly soapy.  The essence is sold in tiny opaque blue French bottles in upscale markets like Whole Foods for several dollars apiece, but it’s also sold in 12-oz bottles for 2-3 bucks at my local Armenian grocery, presumably because most of the customers use it so much more often in all kinds of fillo or almond- or pistachio-based desserts.

But here I was with orange-blossom-scented oranges, the native article, organic no less. If they were awful as candied peel or marmalade, at least the microwave method meant I wasn’t going to be wasting tons of time or effort, and only a little sugar. So I washed two oranges well, took the outside layer of the peel off with a sharp knife and sliced it into thin shreds.

I find that skinning the navel oranges with a sharp knife and taking only a little of the white pith with the peel is better than peeling first with my fingers and then shredding the whole peel with tons of pith attached–somehow they cook through better in the microwave method, absorb the syrup better, and gel a bit better as marmalade.

So anyway–I poured a bit of water on the shreds in a soup bowl, covered the bowl with a saucer and microwaved a minute. The water I poured off was greenish yellow and smelled like orange blossom–tasted like it too.  But the peel still smelled like it as well, so not all was lost. I covered the shreds with about 1/3 c. or so granulated sugar, drizzled on a little water to wet it down and squeezed half a lemon over it all. Covered the bowl with a saucer and microwaved about 4-5 minutes. Very heady scent and beautiful flavor, and somehow not soapy, thank goodness. Might have the lemon juice to thank for that, actually.

The shreds sat in their syrup in a covered container most of the day (for me it was forgetting all about it for a couple of hours while letting it cool, but I’ve discovered that it’s also standard marmalade-making practice that helps the syrup gel; who knew?)

The bonus question, of course, is how does it go with chocolate? (that should almost always be my bonus question)

Answer: knockout with dark chocolate. Also very good on toast as marmalade. Something to savor, and the syrup, if I don’t finish it along with the shreds, might go to flavor some almond-paste fillo fingers later this week. Because with something this good, it just seems right to be decadent in small, appreciative doses.

What good is a recipe for this marmalade, though, if you can’t stumble on orange-blossom-scented oranges of your own? I suspect it’s kind of an accidental find, but the fact that orange blossom tastes so good with actual orange peel means that you could make candied orange peel or marmalade and add a drop or two–no more!–of orange blossom to the peel and syrup once they’re already cooked. Don’t forget the lemon juice or a small shake of citric acid (sour salt) to help the preserves last in the fridge. I think the bit of acidity definitely cuts the possibility of soapiness.

On a fresher, lower-carb/lower-cal note, a light (LIGHT!) sprinkling of orange blossom water goes very well on orange slices you intend to use on green salads. One I sometimes make for parties: sprinkle cross-wise slices of several oranges with a tiny bit of orange blossom water. Let them sit a few minutes, then arrange the orange slices on a bed of oil-and-vinegar-dressed romaine and other greens on a large platter, and distribute thinly sliced red onion, red bell pepper, basil and Greek pitted olives  over it all.

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