Sunday, March 16, 2014

Everything You Didn’t Know About Orange Blossoms

What flower’s fragrance is your absolute favorite? We all know that the roses smell wonderful, and many enjoy the heavy, deep aroma of gardenia. Down south, wisteria and jasmine are often planted for the glorious perfume they bring to a yard. And while the flowers are tiny, the scent of lily of the valley is exquisite.

Orange blossoms
were a symbol of love
and fertility for the
ancient Greeks.
But if you’ve ever been lucky enough to visit an orange grove in March when the trees are in bloom, then you’ve experienced one of the most delicately beautiful fragrances on earth. There’s really nothing quite like this scent, which is sweet, light, ethereal and somehow very fresh. Aromatherapy holds that the essence of orange blossoms is naturally cheering and uplifting, and I’m certainly inclined to agree. I’ve even heard it said that heaven must smell like orange blossoms.

While the flowers aren’t extremely showy, orange blossoms also certainly have a dainty, feminine beauty. Interestingly, they’ve long had an association with weddings and love, dating back thousands of years. Greek mythology holds that when Hera wedded Zeus, Gaia, the earth goddess, crowned her with orange blossoms as a symbol of love and fertility.

For her wedding, Queen Victoria wore a wreath
of orange blossoms instead of a tiara.
Much later, orange blossoms became madly popular among Victorian brides after Queen Victoria chose to wear a wreath of the fragrant flowers on her wedding day. Bride after bride followed suit, wearing the blossoms in their hair or carrying them in their bouquets.  Artisans even crafted imitation orange blooms out of wax for women who couldn’t get their hands on the real thing. Women who yearn for a Victoriana wedding can still purchase these wax hair ornaments today, and tiaras, wedding jewelry, and even wedding dresses with orange blossom themes and ornamentation remain popular–and lovely.

Orange Blossom water is
used in many Middle Eastern
and European recipes.
Orange blossoms are edible, though not many of us in this country have been lucky enough to try them. In Morocco, the flowers are steeped with mint and green tea leaves to create what must be a gloriously sweet-smelling beverage. They can also be candied or used to decorate baked goods. Commercially, the blooms of the bitter orange tree are used to make orange flower water, an ingredient in Middle Eastern and European cooking. Orange flower water lends its sweet perfume to treats like baklava, meringues, and madeleines.

Appropriately enough, the orange blossom is the state flower of Florida. If you’ve never had a chance to appreciate this enchanting scent, I hope that one day you’ll have the opportunity. For now, you might seek out one of the many perfumes, fragrances, or essential oils derived from the flowers. Or maybe you can get your hands on one of those tasty baked goods made with orange flower water. In the meantime, we might suggest enjoying the sweet, delectable flavor of a fresh orange or tangerine. After all, they’re the delicious end result of these fleeting, sweet blossoms.

Image Attribution

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Don’t Throw Away Those Orange Peels - Make This Gourmet Ingredient Instead

If you’ve ever juiced a pile of oranges for a recipe, a big breakfast, or maybe even a decadent mimosa brunch, you know that you end up with a big pile of rinds afterwards. To most of us, this probably looks like something to sweep into the garbage.

But hold on a minute there! Has it ever crossed your mind that you’re throwing out a world of flavor every time you do this? As every cook knows, the zest of an orange (or any citrus) can add sweet aroma and powerful citrus essence to a recipe.

So why not take these former “throwaways” and use them to stock your pantry with some great citrus-based flavor boosters? Today, we’ll teach you how to make dried, powdered orange zest and citrus salt and sugar from discarded peels. You can use these items to easily and conveniently flavor your food, even when your fresh citrus is long gone.

To make the dried peel, we’re first going to use a knife to remove the zest from a few oranges. Of course, thoroughly wash and lightly scrub them first to remove any surface dirt.

Zested orange
I used just two oranges for this demonstration, but for efficiency’s sake, you’ll probably want to wait till you’re about to juice a lot of oranges. If you need to restock on oranges, we can help with that. Note that I didn’t peel the oranges by hand. Instead, I used a sharp knife to remove the colored exterior zest, while trying not to get too much of the white interior pith, which is a little bitter. I wasn’t too compulsive about this, though.

Next, I put my zest pieces into a very low oven (170 degrees; if your oven won’t go quite this low, set it at its lowest temp and start checking them sooner) and baked them for about 3 hours, or until they easily snapped in half. Here are the baked zest pieces.

Baked zest pieces

You could also use a dehydrator for this step, or, if you’re patient, you could try drying them in the sun or at room temperature, which will probably take a few days to a week, depending on the weather. Some websites mention that it’s possible to bake them at a higher temperature for a short time (250 for 1 hour) for a slightly more “roasted” flavor.

Next, I got out my coffee grinder to grind the peel. First, I cleaned it out to make sure it wouldn’t leave any coffee odor or taste on my zest. A damp Q-tip helps with this, but here’s a neat trick: take a small piece of white bread, break it apart, and put that into the grinder and whiz it for a minute. It’ll really help clean out the interior.

Pulse the zest for about 30 seconds to a minute, stopping every so often to make sure any large pieces get redistributed. It should quickly break down into a nice, soft powder that looks something like this. I got about 3 ½ tablespoons from just two oranges.

Powdered zest after grinding

You can stop here and store your dried zest in a glass jar, to be used much as you would fresh orange zest.  It’ll work beautifully in all kinds of baked goods, marinades, salad dressings, meat rubs—anywhere you’d use fresh zest. It has a slightly more mellow and less acidic flavor, but you should be able to substitute it about 1 for 1.

With just a few minutes more, you can add citrus salt and citrus sugar to your pantry. To make the salt, you’ll need some coarse-grained sea salt. Mine came in a shaker, but you can also often find this in bulk. Just don’t get the fine sea salt that looks like regular iodized salt.

Citrus salt in the grinder
Whir about 1½ Tbsp of your zest with about ½ cup of the salt in the coffee grinder, just till the salt breaks down a little and mixes nicely with the zest. You’ll probably need to do this in batches. Here’s what mine looked like when I stopped.

This is a great “finishing salt” to be added at the end of cooking to chicken, fish, shrimp, vegetables, and pasta. (Or how about on salted caramels? Wow.) It adds a beautiful, haunting citrus flavor even when you have no citrus on hand. It would also be a really deluxe touch around the rim of a homemade margarita.

Citrus sugar
The citrus sugar is even easier. Just add 1 tbsp of zest to 1 cup of sugar in a jar, and shake vigorously. Taste this if you like (it’s no hardship) and add more zest or sugar to your preference. This lovely, fragrant sugar can be added to tea or iced tea and used to amp up the citrus flavor in any baked good—just substitute citrus sugar for regular sugar. You won’t have trouble finding ways to use it up, believe me.

Your citrus salt and citrus sugar would also be great homemade gifts for foodies, packaged in attractive jars, perhaps with a pretty ribbon. Just remember to label which is which!

And don’t forget—you made all this from (basically) nothing. Not only that, you reduced waste and created something gourmet in the process! Citrus is an incredible fruit for many reasons, but one of my favorite things about it is the way you really can use the whole thing. Look for more posts on great ways to use citrus peels and zest in the future.

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