Jan 30, 2013

Citrus Spark Spice

It's gray here in Massachusetts, but I am glad for the drab palate that begs for contrast. It pushes me to want something, namely COLOR and BRIGHTNESS to add life to the otherwise paint-chipped landscape.

When I called my mother in a down mood the other day she said, "I don't know why, but I think you need to eat more turmeric." Maybe so, as turmeric has been known to be a natural medicine for arthritis and other ailments, although I wasn't feeling too stiff.  She was right though, in her instinct to eat color. I told her I like turmeric, but I was focused on eating citrus. She responded alarmingly, "you don't think you have the flu, do you?" I don't have the flu, mom. I just need to eat citrus!

At the bakery where I work we are taking full advantage of the glorious citrus coming into season: Meyer lemons, tangerines, grapefruits, blood oranges, kumquats. I get inspired every time I see Chef Maura at the stove processing some new fruit, because it means an exciting new something will be appearing on the menu. While it's gray and cold here, the citrus are ripe on the trees in California and Florida, and they are arriving by the crate load like sun to the dark side of the moon. Maura's most recent addition to the menu was blood-orange pistachio cake, with candied blood oranges creating a sweet and tart marriage of flavors.

Oranges and citrus fruits are not considered spices, per se, as they are first and foremost fruit. But like any spice that starts out as some form of a plant, citrus is no exception. The peel is where the essential oils live (i.e. the flavor!), and is what can be processed into a course powder that can be added to sauces, aioli, frostings, cookies, marinades, rubs, dressings etc. The oil contained in orange peels is so powerful in fact that you could clean your floor with oranges, should you so choose. The perfume is intoxicating, and comes in a variety of tones; Earl Gray tea is flavored with bergamot, the oil that comes from the bergamot citrus (Citrus bergamia), a relative of the bitter orange. My mind begins to explode a little when I start to think about all the amazing orange species - Seville! Valencia! Mandarin! Cara cara! Belladonna! Jaffa! Moro! - not to mention all the other species that just create fireworks in my brain. John McPhee's 1975 book Oranges is a good place to start if, like me, you find yourself in a state of orange curiosity.

Citrus peels are often used in cocktails, to give that wonderful lift of citrus flavor that compliments so many smoky or herbal spirits. You can almost judge a cocktail bar on the freshness of its citrus; the best bartenders take a second to rub the edge of an orange peel on the rim of your glass before giving it a quick twist to release the volatile oils. If you were to light a match just at that moment, a flame would leap up, fueled by that fiery citrus soul. But back to citrus cum spice. To make your own citrus spice, start with organic citrus, because you don't want pesticide laced spices. My favorite citrus spice is that made from blood oranges - the acid is not as sharp as in other fruits, and it just has a deeper, almost raspberry-like flavor, but any good orange, lemon or even grapefruit will do!

Citrus Spice
Yields about 3 tablespoons

Ingredients & Equipment: 

2 oranges, such as Moro Blood Orange, washed and dried
vegetable peeler
cookie sheet
parchement paper


Use a veggie peeler to peel long thin strips of peel from the oranges. If there's still a bit of white pith attached to the strips, take a paring knife and scrape it off - you will be grateful! The pith is quite bitter. Place the peels on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. For drying them out, you have a couple options: if you have a food dehydrator. go for it, following the settings for herbs (about 10-12 hrs). If you don't, you can place the cookie sheet in your oven set at the lowest setting (mine just says "Warm"), and let them dry out for about 5-6 hours.

The goal is for the peels to be completely, totally dry and maybe even a tiny bit toasted. Before using, such as in the cocktail recipe below, grind your dried zest in a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle until it becomes a fine dust.

For other recipes, you may want a courser grind for added texture. For some awesome toasted orange recipes, see Chef Ana Sortun's book Spice; try the aioli with toasted orange and garlic: it's outrageous. I also tossed a couple teaspoons in my chocolate chip cookie recipe, and it was delightful.

Then, what about your naked orange sans zest? I love the way Diana Henry puts it, in her book Crazy Water Pickled Lemons: "For a truly grown-up appreciation of the orange just slice some good navel oranges, layer them with wafer-thin red onions, and anoint the whole thing with extra-virgin olive oil. It might sound like summer eating, but these salads bring great shocks of sunshine to wintering taste buds." Is this enough to fight the gray? Peel, inhale, squeeze that skin till it sparks.

Cocktail Recipe: The Mt. Etna
Yields 1 cocktail

This recipe is inspired by one of my all-time favorite cocktails, the Negroni, a popular and bitter Italian cocktail. It's fun to make in the winter because it is so fresh and full of deep, sunshiny flavors. I named it after Mt. Etna, the volcano on Sicily where blood oranges are believed to have originated.

To make The Mt. Etna:

Stir in a chilled cocktail shaker with ice:

1 1/2 oz whiskey or bourbon
1/2 oz red vermouth
1/2 oz Triple Sec
1/2 oz Campari or Aperol

For Garnishing the glass:
1 slice orange
1 TB dried citrus spice mixed with 1 tsp sugar

Before straining into the glass, rub the rim of the glass with a slice of fruit, then gently roll the edge of the glass in your toasted orange spice. YA!

Books Referenced in this entry:
McPhee, John Oranges Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975
Sortun, Ana Spice William Morrow Cookbooks, 2006
Henry, Diana Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons, MITCH, 2006