Keep 'em peeled

They're only around for three weeks each year, but Seville oranges are the perfect antidote to winter blues. Catch them if you can, says Sybil Kapoor
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Anyone who regularly cooks at home will, at some point, become bored and stuck in a groove. For me, it is usually around now. The mere thought of making supper is tedious. I mentally flick through my standard repertoire, more limited than you might imagine, and feel so dispirited that I find myself considering my local take-away. There are two solutions: fly off to a tropical island to be pampered, or dispel the ennui by challenging my culinary preconceptions.

Anyone who regularly cooks at home will, at some point, become bored and stuck in a groove. For me, it is usually around now. The mere thought of making supper is tedious. I mentally flick through my standard repertoire, more limited than you might imagine, and feel so dispirited that I find myself considering my local take-away. There are two solutions: fly off to a tropical island to be pampered, or dispel the ennui by challenging my culinary preconceptions.

Since exotic islands are not always easy to come by, the second option seems more practical. You can, of course, pore over your cookbooks to analyse cooking methods, but it is far nicer to go shopping. Meandering around the supermarket, there is always the chance of discovering something inspiring, whether it be some luscious lychees or the first batch of a forgotten seasonal ingredient. With luck, you might find the odd pile of knobbly, blemished Seville oranges. These are only sold in Britain for about three weeks in January, so they should be around until the end of the month. Grab them, they are perfect for jazzing up your cooking.

It is easy to slot ingredients into categories and never consider using them in other ways. The Seville orange is inextricably linked in our minds with marmalade. Delicious as this is, it under-utilises an extraordinary fruit. Treat the Seville orange as a lemon disguised as an orange and you will discover all sorts of tantalising new flavour combinations.

Culinary experimentation is only successful if you understand your ingredients. Seville oranges, for example, have some interesting characteristics that can make or break a dish. Their rind contains more aromatic oil thana sweet orange, which means that their zest will imbue a dish with a more intense orange flavour than a sweet orange. Organic specimens (available from Waitrose) are particularly fragrant and carry none of the worries about pesticide residues in the skin.

Their pith, one of the main sources of pectin for marmalade, is thick and very bitter. As a result, it will make superb home-made candied peel, since once it has been sufficiently blanched in boiling water to remove the excess bitterness, the pith will soak up the sugar syrup. Its thickness will make it all the more succulent and translucent. Great care, however, must be taken to ensure that when the zest is being used as a flavouring, no pith is attached, otherwise the recipe will taste bitter. Seville orange flesh is very juicy and filled with pips. They also contain pectin, and are worth saving if you are planning on making lots of marmalade. Its juice is mouth-puckeringly sour yet deliciously fruity. Used cautiously, it will emphasise the sweetness of the other ingredients, but add too much and the dish will become too sharp to enjoy.

Three hundred and fifty years ago, such sourness was valued by British cooks, who loved their bitter winter oranges as much as lemons. Sweet oranges were a rarity, and only became popular with the introduction of the "China" orange in the mid-17th century. The Portuguese had discovered the latter through their Eastern trade routes - hence the name.

Bitter orange trees had originally been introduced into southern Europe by the Moors, who had also developed irrigation methods perfect for the dry summers of Spain, Portugal, Sicily and southern Italy. It was they who also developed the art of preserving them in sugar, since in medieval times they monopolised the sugar trade. Gradually, the fresh fruit began to be exported into northern Europe, first as an expensive luxury but later as an affordable health-imbued delicacy.

The British fashion for cooking with bitter oranges peaked in the 17th century as increasing quantities were imported. Cooks whisked their juice into savoury sauces to accompany poultry, and served them with fish, sometimes just sliced like lemon. They were added to savoury salads, mixed into cheesecakes (an old name for orange curd tarts) and used to flavour ornate jellies. Naturally, no gentlewoman worth her salt would omit to preserve them as marmalade or succade (orange and lemon peel preserved in syrup) for later in the year.

In other words, you can use Seville oranges in all manner of delicious dishes, from savoury salads to rich puddings. Imagine squeezing some of the juice into a spicy scallop ceviche, or adding a little zest to a bitter chocolate mousse. You could dry some finely pared rind to flavour an aromatic lamb or beef stew later in the year, or slip it, freshly pared, into some brandy. Alternatively, squeeze the juice to make an invigorating orange pressé, or perhaps a refreshing winter sorbet. The squeezed fruit could then be turned into candied peel. Jane Grigson's Fruit Book has a reliable recipe. The resulting fruit could then be added to cakes or steamed puddings. There are so many intriguing recipes to create with Seville oranges that culinary ennui melts away, forgotten in delight of cooking something new.

Chicory, orange and olive salad Serves 6

An easy salad that makes a refreshing starter. The Seville orange juice brings out the inherent sweetness of the navel oranges and chicory.

2tbsp Seville orange juice

2tbsp extra virgin olive oil

salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 navel oranges

6 fat green olives, stoned and quartered

4 heads chicory (Belgian endive)

1 bunch watercress, washed and trimmed, or 85g ready-washed

1 red onion, finely sliced into rings

Squeeze the juice from the Seville orange and measure out 2tbsp. Whisk with 2tbsp olive oil and season to taste. Set aside. Slice off the top and bottom of two navel oranges. Cut away their pith and skin. Hold the first orange over a bowl and cut away each segment with a small serrated knife. Once all the segments are free, squeeze out the excess juice from the empty casing. Repeat the process with the second orange. When ready to serve, remove from their juice and place in a large mixing bowl. The juice can be drunk as the cook's perk. Add the olives, chicory leaves, watercress sprigs and finely sliced onion to the orange segments. Rewhisk the vinaigrette, pour over the leaves and gently mix. Serve immediately.

Seville orange syllabub

Serves 6

An amazingly rich but delicious syllabub. It can be made in advance, but you will need to rewhisk it as the alcohol separates slightly from the cream.

2 Seville oranges

3tbsp good brandy, like Remy Martin

55g caster sugar

100ml good white dessert wine

560ml chilled double cream

Finely pare the rind from one orange, making sure that none of the white pith is attached. Place the zest in a small mixing bowl with the brandy and sugar. Cover and leave for a minimum of 12 hours or until needed. The zest imbues the brandy with a superb orange flavour.

When you are preparing the meal, remove the peel from the brandy. It will feel stiff and candied. Trim and cut into fine julienne to decorate the syllabub. Set aside. Scrape the sugary liquid into a large mixing bowl and add the dessert wine. Then, using a zester, finely grate the rind from the remaining orange. Mix into the brandy with the juice from 1 1/2 Seville oranges.

Shortly before serving, gradually whisk in the double cream. Keep whisking until it forms soft peaks. This will happen very quickly. Spoon into wine glasses or punch glasses and decorate with the julienned peel. Serve immediately or within half an hour.

Salmon with orange butter sauce

Serves 6

Bitter oranges were once a common accompaniment to fish, and still taste wonderful with a rich oily fish, like salmon. This may not be a classic butter sauce as it contains cream to soften its intense orange flavour and the shallots are left suspended in the sauce, but it tastes gorgeous nonetheless. 6 portions salmon fillet

salt and freshly ground black pepper

olive oil For the sauce

1 fat shallot, finely diced

1 Seville orange, juiced

1 sweet orange, juiced

2tbsp double cream

salt and freshly ground black pepper

200g cold, unsalted butter cut into small dice

 

Place the shallot in a small non-corrosive saucepan with the juice from the two oranges. Set over a medium heat and simmer until the juice has reduced to 2tbsp. Add the cream and season, before setting aside until nearly ready to serve.

Preheat two oven-top grill pans. Lightly season the salmon and rub each portion with a little olive oil. Place three portions flesh-side down in each grill pan. Cook for 2 minutes, then lift and replace them - still flesh-side down - at a different angle to ensure that you have a diamond pattern branded on to them.

After a further 2 minutes, flip over and grill skin-side down for about 5 minutes. The time will vary according to the thickness of your fillets and how rosy you like their interior. Set aside and keep warm while you finish the sauce.

Return the reduced orange juice and cream to a boil. As soon as it thickens slightly, lower the heat to a simmer and begin whisking in a few cubes of diced butter. As soon as each has melted and amalgamated into the hot liquid, add a few more cubes until the butter is finished and you have a smooth, thick sauce. Serve immediately - you cannot reheat this sauce as it will split - with the hot salmon.

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