California’s orange crop dips after huge 2016, but navel oranges still sweeter

Broiled chicken thighs with oranges, fennel and green olives is but one example of how home cooks can employ California’s citrus-fruit star. (Find the recipe, from The New York Times, on Page 2D.) The state’s 2017 crop is expected to be solid, though less than the bounty picked last year.
Broiled chicken thighs with oranges, fennel and green olives is but one example of how home cooks can employ California’s citrus-fruit star. (Find the recipe, from The New York Times, on Page 2D.) The state’s 2017 crop is expected to be solid, though less than the bounty picked last year. The New York Times

Oranges, California’s signature winter crop, come rolling into stores this month during peak citrus season. The quality will be good, the flavor excellent. The only problem? There’s not as many as last year.

Coming off a bumper crop, California’s navel orange trees are in the midst of a down cycle.

“The trees got tired,” said Joel Nelsen, president of the California Citrus Mutual, which represents about 2,500 growers. “We’re significantly down this year.”

Last season’s California navel orange harvest totaled more than 94 million cartons, about 3.76 billion pounds. This season, the growers expect 84 million cartons – a 400 million-pound drop.

“Last year, we had such a huge crop, the trees needed to take a break,” said Nelsen, adding that such cycles are normal for citrus. “But there’s still plenty of fruit to go around. Fresh California oranges will be available well into June.”

While Florida produces juice oranges, California is still America’s fresh citrus king, supplying about 80 percent of the nation’s fresh oranges, lemons and other citrus, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We’re the No. 1 fresh citrus-producing state,” Nelsen said. “Navel oranges, mandarins and lemons; those are our top three.”

While much of that fruit will be eaten out of hand, oranges are extremely versatile, too. Native to China, oranges flavor foods around the world, from salads and stir fries to cakes and sherbets.

Navels – the winter orange – have been popular in California since 1873, when the state’s first Washington navel was planted in Riverside. William Saunders, the USDA’s first botanist, developed the Washington navel at his greenhouses in Washington, D.C.; hence the name. More than 140 years later, the Washington navel is still the industry’s dominant variety.

Every Washington navel orange tree in California – all 125,000 acres of them – are descendents of that parent tree. Because navel oranges are sterile, new trees are produced from grafted cuttings.

So far this winter, the weather has been ideal for navel oranges, Nelsen said.

“The weather actually has been just right – cold but not too cold,” he said. “Oranges need a ‘kiss of chill,’ nights under 32 degrees (Fahrenheit) but above 28 degrees. The color is more vibrant. The chill also strengthens the skin, so the fruit lasts longer (off the tree).”

In the heart of California’s citrus belt, Tulare County grows the most navels, followed by Kern, Fresno and Riverside counties.

Meanwhile, Valencia oranges – the summer or juice variety – are getting squeezed out.

“California production of Valencias has fallen dramatically due to competition from offshore imports,” Nelsen said. “We used to grow 60,000 acres; now it’s about 20,000 acres.”

Instead, more mandarins – those easy-peeling Cuties, Smiles and Halos – are coming online in a big way. More than 60,000 acres are now producing mandarins. Interest in those “little oranges” helped boost overall citrus sales and demand for more.

In addition, industry efforts have improved the taste of navel oranges, Nelsen noted. Today’s oranges really are sweeter.

“About five years ago, we put in standards to guarantee better tasting, more consistent fruit,” he said. “It worked. People came back and bought it more readily. Team that with the excitement over Cuties, oranges and mandarins are doing pretty well.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Almond, orange and semolina cake (revani)

Serves 10 to 12

Adapted from “It’s All Greek to Me” by Debbie Matenopoulos (BenBella Books, $29.95, 304 pages).

For the cake:

1 cup butter, plus more for greasing pan, at room temperature

1 1/4 cups sugar

6 large eggs, separated

1 1/2 tablespoons Cointreau orange liqueur

1 tablespoon orange juice

Zest from 1 orange

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup coarse semolina flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon sea salt, plus 1 pinch

1/2 cup slivered blanched almonds, lightly toasted and finely chopped

For the syrup:

2 cups sugar

2 cups water

1 slice orange peel, 2 inches long

1 cinnamon stick

2 teaspoons Cointreau, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare 9-by-13-inch baking pan.

In a bowl, beat together butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add egg yolks, 1 at a time, mixing well until combined. Then add Cointreau, orange juice and zest, mixing 1 minute more. Scrape down the sides of the bowl twice during mixing.

In another bowl, combine all-purpose flour, semolina flour, baking powder, 1/4 teaspoon salt and almonds. Slowly add flour mixture to butter-sugar batter, a third at a time. Mix only until just combined. Set batter aside.

With clean whisks, beat egg whites together with remaining pinch of salt until stiff peaks form, about 3 to 5 minutes. Gently fold egg whites into batter, until just combined. You do not want to lose any of the airy volume from the egg whites. Transfer batter to prepared pan. Using spatula, smooth the top into an even layer.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown and cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

While cake is baking, combine sugar, water, orange peel and cinnamon stick in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Then reduce heat to medium and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove cinnamon stick and orange peel. Add Cointreau, if desired, and stir well.

When cake is done, gently pour hot syrup over the top. Cover with foil, and let cake sit at room temperature for at least 1 hour to cool. Slice into squares, and serve.

Crispy orange beef

Serves 4

Slightly freezing the meat strips made them fry up crisp and crunchy, while still staying tender inside. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Gretchen McKay says, “I added a little bit more orange peel than what was called for, and an extra jalapeño, too, so my son wouldn’t feel impelled to douse his serving with Sriracha.”

Recipe from “Cook’s Illustrated Meat Book” (America’s Test Kitchen, $40, 504 pages).

1 1/2 pounds sirloin steak tips, trimmed

3 tablespoons soy sauce, divided

6 tablespoons cornstarch

10 3-inch strips orange peel, sliced thin lengthwise (1/4 cup), plus 1/2 cup juice (2 oranges)

3 tablespoons molasses

2 tablespoons dry sherry

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil

3 cups vegetable oil

1 jalapeno chili, stemmed, seeded and sliced thin lengthwise

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

3 cloves garlic

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 scallions, sliced thin on bias

Cut beef with grain into 2- to 3-inch-wide pieces. Slice each piece against grain into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Cut each slice lengthwise into 1/2-inch-wide strips. Toss beef with 1 tablespoon soy sauce in bowl. Add cornstarch and toss until evenly coated. Spread beef in single layer on wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet. Put sheet in freezer until meat is very firm but not completely frozen, about 45 minutes.

Whisk orange juice, molasses, sherry, vinegar, sesame oil and remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce together in bowl.

Line second rimmed baking sheet with triple layer of paper towels. Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat until oil registers 375 degrees. Carefully add a third of the beef and fry, stirring occasionally to keep beef from sticking, until golden brown, about 1 1/2 minutes. Using wire-mesh skimmer, transfer meat to paper towel-lined sheet. Return oil to 375 degrees and repeat with remaining beef. After frying, reserve 2 tablespoons frying oil.

Heat reserved oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add orange peel and jalapeño; cook, stirring occasionally, until about half of orange peel is golden brown, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Add ginger, garlic and pepper flakes; cook, stirring frequently, until garlic begins to brown, about 45 seconds. Add soy sauce mixture and cook, scraping up brown bits, until slightly thickened, about 45 seconds. Add beef and scallions and toss. Serve immediately.

Amaranth porridge

Serves 4

From “Simply Ancient Grains, “ by Maria Speck (Ten Speed Press, $27.50, 272 pages).

1 cup amaranth grains

3 tablespoons chopped dates

1/2 cinnamon stick

1 1/2 cups boiling water

1 cup whole milk

3 tablespoons chopped soft dried apricots

Pinch of fine sea salt

1 tablespoon honey, or more as needed

1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest

2 tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts, for garnish

Start the amaranth the night before: Add amaranth, dates and cinnamon stick to a heavy 3- to 4-quart saucepan. Pour the boiling water over it, cover, and allow to sit at room temperature overnight (or chill, covered, for up to 2 days.)

The next morning, finish the porridge: Add the milk, apricots and salt to the saucepan, cover, and bring to a boil. Uncover, stir well with a wooden spoon once, decrease the heat to maintain a lively bubble, and cook until the mixture starts to thicken, about 8 minutes. Stir thoroughly, scraping the bottom, and continue cooking at a simmer, stirring often, until amaranth is creamy, about 2 more minutes. The grains will swell and become translucent but maintain a little crunchiness.

Remove from heat, discard the cinnamon stick, and stir in the honey and orange zest. Taste and adjust sweetness with a bit more honey and milk, if desired. If you have time, cover and allow to sit for 2 minutes. Spoon into bowls and serve warm, garnished with pine nuts.

Mixed green salad with oranges, dried cranberries and pecans

Serves 6

Recipe from Bon Appetit.

1 cup plus 3 tablespoons orange juice, divided

6 tablespoons dried cranberries

3 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon grated orange peel

6 cups mixed baby greens

3 oranges, peel and white pith removed, segmented

3/4 cup pecans, toasted

Bring 1 cup orange juice to simmer in heavy, small saucepan. Remove from heat. Mix in dried cranberries. Let stand until softened, about 30 minutes. Drain well; discard soaking juice.

Whisk oil, vinegar, orange peel and remaining 3 tablespoons orange juice in small bowl to blend. Mix in cranberries. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cool and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before serving).

Place greens in large bowl. Toss with 2/3 of dressing. Divide greens among 6 plates. Add orange segments to bowl; toss with remaining dressing. Top salads with orange segments and pecans.

Per serving: 308 calories; 18g fat; 2g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 5g protein; 34g carbohydrate; 23g sugar; 6g fiber; 30mg sodium; 206mg calcium.

Orange-vanilla ice cream pie with orange whipped cream

Serves 6

This pie offers the creamy-sweet richness of a 50-50 bar. Recipe from the Associated Press.

1 pint vanilla ice cream

1 1/2 cups orange sherbet

1 cup orange soda

1 prepared graham cracker pie shell

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon orange extract

1 tablespoon powdered sugar

Zest of 1 orange

In a blender, combine the ice cream, sherbet and orange soda. Blend until smooth, stopping the blender and stirring the mixture as needed to ensure it blends evenly. Pour the mixture into the pie shell, then carefully transfer to the freezer. Freeze for several hours, or until firm.

When ready to serve, in a large bowl combine the cream, extract and powdered sugar. Use an electric mixer to whip on high until the cream holds firm peaks. Fold in the orange zest, then mound the whipped cream over the ice cream pie. Let stand at room temperature for 5 minutes, or until thawed just enough to easily slice.

Per serving: 520 calories; 320 calories from fat (62 percent of total calories); 36 g fat (19 g saturated; 3.5 g trans fats); 100 mg cholesterol; 47 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 27 g sugar; 4 g protein; 190 mg sodium.

Orange-ginger chicken

Prep time: 30 minutes

Marinate time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 6 minutes

Serves 2 to 3 as a main dish with rice; 4 as part of a multicourse meal

Grace Young adapted her Hong Kong-style mango ginger chicken from “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge.”

12 ounces skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into 1/4-inch-thick bite-size slices

2 tablespoons egg white, lightly beaten

2 1/4 teaspoons cornstarch

4 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons plus 2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil

1/3 cup chicken broth

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 navel orange

1 tablespoon minced ginger

2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 medium green pepper, julienned

1/2 cup thinly sliced red onions

Combine the chicken, egg white, 2 teaspoons cornstarch, 2 teaspoons rice wine and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a medium bowl. Stir until the cornstarch is totally dissolved and no clumps are visible. Add 2 teaspoons of the oil; stir to combine. Refrigerate, uncovered, 30 minutes. Combine the broth, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, the remaining 2 teaspoons rice wine and 1/4 teaspoon cornstarch in a small bowl.

Zest the orange; reserve the zest. Remove white pith from the orange with a sharp paring knife. Working over a bowl to catch any drips, carefully slide the knife on either side of each membrane to free the orange segments, letting segments fall into the bowl.

Heat 1 quart water to a boil in a saucepan. Add 1 tablespoon oil. Reduce the heat to low. When the water is barely simmering, carefully add the chicken, gently stirring so that the pieces do not clump together. Cook until the chicken just turns opaque but is not cooked through, about 1 minute. Carefully drain the chicken in a colander, shaking the colander to remove any excess water.

Heat a 14-inch wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl the remaining 1 tablespoon oil into the wok; add the ginger and garlic. Stir-fry until fragrant, 10 seconds. Add the bell peppers and red onions; stir-fry until the bell peppers are almost crisp-tender, 1 minute. Add the chicken; sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Restir the broth mixture; swirl it into the wok. Stir-fry until the chicken is just cooked through, 1 minute. Stir in the orange segments, zest and any accumulated juices.

Per serving: 257 calories; 11 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 63 mg cholesterol; 13 g carbohydrates; 26 g protein; 1,008 mg sodium; 2 g fiber.

Broiled chicken thighs with oranges, fennel and green olives

Time: 45 minutes

Serves 4

Recipe from The New York Times.

1 bulb fennel, cored and thinly sliced

1 small red onion, thinly sliced

2/3 cup pitted green olives, halved

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon Maras pepper (or substitute 2 teaspoons paprika plus 1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

Cracked black pepper

1 orange, cut into eighths, but not peeled

8 smallish (about 5 ounces each) bone-in chicken thighs

Heat the broiler (to high if you have the option).

Combine the fennel, onion, olives, garlic, Maras pepper and 2 tablespoons oil in a large bowl, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss gently. Spread this mixture in a 9-by-12-inch baking dish or disposable foil pan and scatter orange sections on top.

Add the chicken and remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to the now-empty bowl, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Place thighs on top of fennel mixture, skin side down. Place under broiler with pan about 4 inches from the flame and broil for 10 minutes, turning pan front to back after 4 minutes.

Turn chicken skin side up and continue to broil, switching pan back to front after about 3 minutes and broiling until the skin is crisp and dark brown and the chicken is opaque throughout (or until center of flesh registers 165 degrees on instant-read thermometer), 5 to 7 minutes more. Serve with crusty bread or couscous to soak up the juices.

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