Food and Drink: Marmalade is not the only fruit of oranges: Sophie Grigson, in her first column, suggests new ways of capturing the sweetness and sharpness of winter Sevilles

IT MAY seem unwise to admit this in the first paragraph of my first article for the Independent, but I do not really make the grade as the perfect down- home cook. Listing my flaws would be tedious and possibly embarrassing, but I will come clean on one. I do not settle down every January or February to conjure up a year's supply of marmalade.

I do, once every few years, dabble with a few pounds of home-made marmalade. It's fun, and I love the smell as it bubbles away, but I make no claims to possessing the ultimate, fail-safe recipe. Besides, I am not actually that keen on marmalade itself, except as a cooking ingredient (I use it mainly for ice-cream and a quick version of duck a l'orange).

My lack of proper interest in marmalade-making does not, however, stop me looking forward to the brief season for Seville oranges. Their particular aromatic sourness is unique among citrus fruit, and it would be sad not to make the most of it while it is there. Over the years I have gathered a collection of Seville orange recipes and each season I try to add at least one more - this year it was a South American ceviche.

Choosing good fruit is largely a matter of luck. The scraggier ones are not necessarily the worst. Sevilles naturally have a rougher, meaner look than sweet oranges, and, as they are not waxed, they never look as glossy. Fresh juice-filled fruit will be heavier than old ones, but you can hardly borrow a few from one shop and nip round to another to compare weight, so in practice this is not much help. You just have to take what you can get, use them quickly and keep your fingers crossed.

The peel, or rather the pitted orange zest, is by far the most aromatic part; twist a strip of it and the scented oil slicks out to grease your fingers. Do not waste it if you are making a dish that demands the juice alone. Fresh, it can be grated or pared off in strips (before squeezing the juice) to flavour puddings, cakes and biscuits. When a spell of baking or pudding-making is not on the cards, the zest (or whole peel, white pith and all) can be frozen for another time or, better still, dried and stashed away in an airtight box where it will keep for months.

To dry, pare off the zest with a vegetable peeler before squeezing and either hang it up in an airy dry place, or dry it in a low oven. You can also use the microwave, placing the zest on a double layer of kitchen paper and cooking in short bursts of 20-30 seconds on a medium setting, but watch it carefully as it burns easily at the hotspots. Whichever method you choose, make sure the zest is bone dry before storing. Use it to flavour rich Italian or French- style beefy stews, or in Oriental recipes where dried orange zest is called for.

The juice may be less aromatic but none the less has a fine, sour, mildly spiced flavour. I like it as a bracing breakfast juice, diluted with a splash of water and lightly sweetened.

On the whole, though, I tend to use it in cooking proper. Seville orange curd is a great favourite, something I would much rather have on my toast than marmalade, and it is simply a matter of replacing the lemons in a lemon curd recipe with Sevilles. It works well as an alternative for sweet orange juice in creamy puddings (you may have to increase the sugar slightly), yielding a rather more adult, sophisticated version of the original.

The juice is just as good in savoury mode. Try it as a flavouring for a hollandaise sauce or mayonnaise, to go with poached or grilled salmon, or in the recipe that follows.

I love this way of cooking spinach so much that I serve it as a course on its own. The spinach and the breadcrumbs can be cooked a few hours in advance, leaving just the final reheating to the last minute.

Spinach with Seville Orange

and breadcrumbs

Serves 4

Ingredients: 2lb/900g fresh spinach

1 1/2 oz/40g butter

juice of 1 Seville orange

1tsp ground cinnamon

1tbs oil

1/2 oz/15g fine dry breadcrumbs

4 wedges of Seville orange to serve

salt and pepper

Preparation: Wash the spinach thoroughly and discard any thick tough stems or damaged leaves. Shake off excess water and pack the spinach into a large pan. Cover and cook over a gentle heat for five minutes. Stir, and cover again. Turn the heat up slightly and cook for another 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally until spinach is just cooked. Drain well and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Heat 1/2 oz/15g butter and the oil in a small frying pan, and fry the breadcrumbs until golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper.

Just before serving, reheat the spinach with the remaining butter, Seville orange juice, cinnamon, salt and pepper, stirring as it heats up. Taste and adjust seasonings. At the same time, reheat the breadcrumbs. Tip the spinach into a serving dish and scatter crumbs over the top. Serve with orange wedges.

THIS is a quick, zippy marinade that will go well with all kinds of fish, though it has a strong affinity with the gamey flavour of red mullet.

Grilled Red Mullet marinaded

with Seville Orange and Thyme

Serves 4

Ingredients: 4 medium-sized red mullet

1 Seville orange, cut into 8 wedges, to serve

Marinade: juice of 3 Seville oranges

finely grated zest of 1 Seville orange

4tbs olive oil

leaves of 4 sprigs bruised fresh thyme or 1tsp dried thyme

2tbs chopped parsley

1/2 onion, roughly chopped

salt and pepper

Preparation: Make two diagonal slashes on each side of each fish, across the fattest part, so that the heat can penetrate to cook the flesh evenly. Mix the marinade ingredients and pour over the fish. Leave for at least half an hour, a couple of hours if possible.

Take the fish out of the marinade and grill for about seven minutes per side until cooked through, brushing occasionally with marinade. Serve with the orange wedges.

CEVICHE is a Latin American dish of raw fish 'cooked' in sharp citrus juice, often lime or lemon, but Seville orange juice does the job just as well if not

better. It is only worth making if you can get very good fresh fish, and then it is a marvellous dish. If the cod on

offer is not first-class, use some other type of fresh, firm, white-fleshed fish

instead.

Ceviche of Cod

Serves 4

Ingredients: 12oz/340g freshest cod

fillet

juice of 3 Seville oranges

1 red pepper, de-seeded and diced

1 green pepper, de-seeded and diced

1 large firm tomato, skinned, de-seeded and diced

1 small red onion, finely chopped

1 clove of garlic, very finely chopped

1-2 green chillies, de-seeded and very finely chopped

2tbs chopped coriander

3tbs olive oil

salt and pepper

Preparation: Cut the cod into fingers around 1cm/1/2 in wide and 4cm/11 2 in long. Place in a shallow dish and pour over the orange juice. Leave for between 20 minutes and an hour. Prepare all the other ingredients and, just before serving, mix with the fish.

THIS is a blissfully indulgent pudding that takes me back to my childhood. My mother would make it every year when the Seville orange season was in full swing, a treat to look forward to. She adapted the recipe from The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald, published in 1769.

Elizabeth Raffald's Orange Custards

Serves 8-10

Ingredients: 1 Seville orange

1tbs brandy or Grand Marnier

4oz/125g granulated sugar

6 large egg yolks

1/2 pint double cream

1/2 pint single cream

candied orange peel (optional)

Preparation: Pare half the zest from the orange in wide strips with a vegetable peeler. Blanch in boiling water for two minutes and drain. Process or liquidise with the brandy or Grand Marnier, orange juice, sugar and egg yolks.

Mix the single and double cream and bring to the boil, then stir into the egg and orange mixture. Strain into 8-10 small ramekins. Stand in a roasting tin and pour boiling water around them to a depth of about 2cm/3/4 in. Bake at 160C/325F/gas 3 until just set - around 30 minutes. Serve warm or chilled with a piece of candied orange peel if you have it, set in the centre of each.

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