Don’t overlook the navel

This beet and orange salad is a winter classic.
This beet and orange salad is a winter classic. Chicago Tribune

It’s easy to be dazzled by all the spectacular citrus in the markets this time of year: blood and Cara Cara oranges, Meyer lemons, a dozen kinds of mandarins, finger limes and Big Wong pummelos.

But take a moment to appreciate one more truly great piece of fruit, one that is often overlooked today: the navel orange.

A well-grown navel is exceptionally sweet, richly flavored and very juicy.

But its existence is perilous, upstaged by mandarins and other trendy citrus.

Pop a wedge of one of these navel oranges in your mouth and you’ll understand why there was such a fuss about them when they were introduced in the 19th century.

Navel oranges were found in Brazil in the early 1800s, a “sport” or spontaneous mutation on an orange tree. First planted in Southern California in the 1870s, they quickly became the hallmark of California citrus.

The navel is also a biological oddity. It’s naturally seedless; any new trees must be grown from cuttings of old trees.

There are so many things you can do with an orange. Grind the zest to make a spiced salt (start with 1/4 cup of salt and 2 teaspoons of grated zest and vamp from there). Or make a finishing sugar the same way: Allow about 1/2 cup of sugar for the zest of every orange.

Or try roasting your oranges. This adds a caramel note to the sweetness of the fruit and softens the bitterness of the peel.

Of course, you could do any of these things with Meyer lemons or any of those other trendy citrus fruits. But when you cook with navels, you’re cooking with history.

Beet orange salad

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 1 hour

Serves 6

This otherwise easy salad will test your knife skills. Recipe via the Chicago Tribune.

6 medium beets

3 navel oranges

1/4 cup apricot jam

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 tablespoons orange juice

2 teaspoons sherry vinegar

Flaky salt, such as Maldon

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

Scrub beets, trim stems to 1 inch, leave tails intact. Settle beets in a baking pan. Add water to cover the bottom of the pan. Cover pan with foil; slide into a 400-degree oven and roast beets until tender when poked with a fork, about 60 minutes.

When beets are cool enough to handle, snap on disposable gloves. Using a freshly sharpened knife, lop off tops and tails, slip off skins. Slice into 1/4-inch-thick circles.

Next, slice away north and south pole on one orange. Cut away peel and pith from north to south, exposing flesh. Slice into 1/4-inch-thick circles. Repeat with other oranges. Arrange sliced beets and oranges on a platter.

Melt jam and butter in a small saucepan set over medium-high heat. Pour in juice. Boil 1 minute. Stir in vinegar. Strain dressing over beets and oranges. Let stand, 10 minutes. Scatter on salt, pepper and mint, and serve.

Roasted carrots and oranges with cumin and pepitas

Cook time: 50 minutes

Serves 4 to 6

2 pounds carrots (various colors preferred), peeled and halved lengthwise, then quartered if very large

1 orange, unpeeled, sliced as thin as possible

2 shallots, sliced thin

1 teaspoon cumin seed

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice

1/2 cup Greek yogurt

1/4 cup toasted and salted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spread the carrots, oranges and shallots on the baking sheet and sprinkle over cumin seed, salt and black pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and the orange juice, and toss to coat everything lightly and evenly.

Arrange the orange slices and carrots in as close to a single layer as you can. Roast until the oranges are fragrant and have begun to color, about 20 minutes. Stir carrots and oranges with a spatula and continue roasting until carrots are tender and lightly browned, about 10 minutes more.

Arrange the vegetables on a platter, spoon over yogurt and sprinkle with pepitas. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Orange-ginger chicken

Prep time: 30 minutes, plus 30 minutes marinate time

Cook time: 6 minutes

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

Adapted by Grace Young from her “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge” for the Chicago Tribune.

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