“Never judge a book by its cover” – we’re told this from childhood and carry it with us into adulthood. It’s a kind of catch-all admonishment not to refuse to read a book because of its boring/ugly/frankly disturbing cover – take a look at these covers to see what I mean! Not to shun the awkward kid in the playground whose mom dresses him funny. Not to throw away that classic rock album because the cover art is so dodgy. Not to refuse a date with somebody just because they do not look like a supermodel. You know the story. It’s very much the same with foods: don’t refuse to eat something just because it looks like brown slop (hello, delicious beef stew and chilli con carne, I’m talking to you); and don’t think that because your apple is shinier and less lumpy that it will taste any better!
And then you encounter the blood orange – possible nature’s most surprising fruit, and the least likely to be accurately judged by its exterior. Blood oranges may have originated in either China or the Southern Mediterranean, although today they are most popular and widely grown in Italy. From the outside, many varieties are indistinguishable from normal oranges which are, well… orange. But slice them open and they will reveal their secret – flesh tinged with deep crimson, sometimes only in faint traces, and sometimes saturated through the whole fruit. It is thought that blood oranges are a natural mutation of the sweet orange, and we now know that the anthocyanin pigments which give the flesh its distinctive colour will only develop when temperatures are low at night – such as in the Mediterranean region. The presence of anthoycyanins means that blood oranges contain greater amounts of antioxidants than other oranges and have a distinct raspberry flavour in addition to the more usual citrus notes.
The blood orange season is regrettably brief, and I so seldom encounter them in my forays into the local supermarket that I was beside myself with excitement when I unexpectedly discovered a basket at a tiny greengrocer near my office recently. I greedily ate a couple but put the other two aside to turn into a dish – but what? The obvious choice would be something sweet – the internet is awash with glorious recipes for sweet things using blood oranges: Seville and blood orange sorbet with Sichuan pepper; dark chocolate blood orange cake; blood orange, olive oil and cardamom syrup cake; blood orange pot au creme with dulce du leche…
But the last time I got my hands on blood oranges, I went savoury with a fennel and blood orange salad with toasted pistachios – and this time would prove to be no different. Apart from the last of the blood oranges, I also had a few cooked beets in the fridge and some fresh salmon fillets and voila: an idea was born. Beetroot are another super-colourful food (although their colour comes from other pigments called betalains) and I thought the sweetness of the orange would match well with the earthiness of the beetroot. I was right. If we weren’t going away the following day and I’d had more fresh stuff in the fridge, I would have added a hand of finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, but even as simple as it was, this salsa was a beautiful match for the pan-fried salmon fillets and a feast for the eyes.
- 2 small cooked beets, diced
- 2 blood oranges, peeled, seeded and chopped roughly
- a small handful of flat-leaf parsley finely chopped (optional)
- a couple of tablespoons of raspberry (or other sweet berry) vinegar
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 salmon fillets, skin on
- a little oil for frying
- Place the diced beetroot, chopped orange and parsley (if using) in a bowl, add the vinegar and mix well. Check for seasoning and add more vinegar, as well as salt and pepper to taste.
- Heat a little oil in a heavy frying pan or skillet. Rinse the fish, pat dry and generously salt the skin side.
- When the pan is hot, place the fish in the pan skin-side down and cook over medium high heat for 2-3 minutes or so, depending on the thickness of the fillets. Turn the fillets over and cook for another 1 minute until the outside of the fish is cooked but it remains pink on the inside.
- Serve immediately on a bed of couscous topped with the blood orange & beetroot salsa.