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Produce Profile by Mark "Guido The Gardner" ® Ferro
Navel Oranges
At the close of last week's Produce Profile, I said that I'd need to get creative if I was to tie in President's Day to any produce goodies. Well folks, creativity abounds! How about Washington variety of navel oranges.

Oranges go to far back to track, but more than likely they originated in Southeast Asia. You can bet that they were not the sweet juicy fruits familiar to us today. Rather they were small, mostly rind and quite bitter. The Chinese are credited with developing oranges, probably about 6000 years ago. From Asia, they made their way to Europe in the 1300's.

Christopher Columbus took various citrus to the Americas in 1493. The Spanish explorer, Ponce De Leon introduced oranges to Florida in the late 1500's. And California's presence in the citrus world began when the Franciscan padres brought them here in the 1700's.

Although the padres were the first to plant trees in the Golden State, it took two families of industrious pioneers to create the California citrus industry.

In 1841 one William Wolfskill began planting an orchard using rootstock from the San Gabriel Mission. By 1875 he had planted about 17,000 trees and was shipping them all over the state.

At about the same time, East coast transplants, Luther and Eliza Tibbetts settled in the Riverside area and began their own citrus endeavor. They sent away to the US Department of Agriculture in Washington DC for some inside orange information. Recognizing a free experimentation when he saw it, the Ag Commissioner sent them some Brazilian orange rootstock. Well, it stuck, and since then, the forever after named Washington (as in DC) variety has dominated the fresh eating navel orange industry. The majority of the country's Washington navels are grown here in California where they get the right combination of cold winter and warm summer temperatures. Florida, on the other hand, is the home of over 70% of the total U.S. crop and most of that is in the form of juicing or processing oranges. All of this vitamin C from the tree goes to make the United States the number two orange grower in the world. (Brazil is number one, mainly juicers).

Navel oranges differ from their more prolific cousins, Valencias and others, in that they are more suited to eating fresh out of hand as opposed to juicing. Although you can use a navel for juicing, said juice does this funny separation trick and can turn bitter rather quickly. Navels also have much thicker skins which make them no sweat to peel.

Juicing style oranges are thin skinned and need knife assistance for entry.

The best way to pick a flavorful orange is to use your mouth, as in tasting it. They are very easy for retail produce folks to "sample out". All you have to do is ask. Short of that, bounce a couple in your hand and pick the ones that feel heavy for their size. It is the juice that gives an orange its heft, and its flavor.

Right now it's tough to find a bad navel orange. The season runs a long time, from November for the early varieties and well into spring. As production now is really on a roll, it brings larger and tastier fruit.

You may even still find some "leaf and stem" navel oranges that are very popular for Chinese New Year. They don't necessarily taste any better, but they are prettier!

The organic growers are also well represented. Currently the flavor is very good, although the fruit never sizes up as large as conventional. Both navels and also the very early Valencia organic fruit is available. So there is a choice out there.

Before I go - one citrus cutting tip. Always cut citrus across, not north/south through the stem. A cut through the stem, with wedges cut from the half, leaves the membrane there to fight through as you bite. By cutting east/west, the resulting wedges have the membrane running the same way as your bite. Take my word for it. It just results in an easier, more tender taste experience.

On that somewhat confusing note ... until next week.....