He's squeezed for time while cooking with fresh oranges

The Baltimore Sun

I am used to writing on deadline, but not cooking on one.

Yet when a box of navel oranges arrived at our home recently, an annual gift from the Arizona in-laws, I began competing against the march of time, a race against rot.

I was motivated by fresh-fruit guilt, a variant of the feeling of duty that sweeps over me in August when the tomato crop comes in. You know you've got good stuff, but it is fading fast. You want to use it at its peak, before it spoils. Faced with an excess of ripe tomatoes, you can make sauce. Confronted with a box of ripe oranges, I started slicing, squeezing and cooking.

The life span of oranges, I read, is about two to three weeks if they are wrapped in plastic bags and refrigerated. When you have a box load of some 40 oranges, as I did, storing them in the fridge is not an option. So they sat on the kitchen floor in a cardboard box. The freshness clock was ticking.

I began each morning pawing through the box, feeling the oranges, searching for ones that were softer or more shriveled than others. Often, these resided on the bottom of the box, a byproduct of being crushed by the fruit above them. Even for oranges, life is tough at the bottom.

With an orange or two in hand, I paused to consider several breakfast options. The first was the au-naturel approach, eating the raw fruit. These oranges were bursting with flavor, but after about five straight mornings of wrestling with juicy oranges, it was time for a menu change.

I started squeezing oranges by hand in a juicer. This was another initially fragrant but eventually tiresome activity. When straight juice had lost its appeal, I added supplements - yogurt and bananas - and made a smoothie. I am not a smoothie type. But when faced with the potential expiration of a box of oranges, sacrifices must be made.

As I headed out the door for the office, I stashed a few oranges in my briefcase, to eat for lunch. One day, my lunchtime orange was dry and slightly bitter, a sign that nature and spoilage was taking its course. The battle against decay quickened.

When I returned home in the evening, it was time for orange experiments. I cooked some carrots in orange juice, butter and ginger. A so-so dish, but it did consume oranges.

To further boost consumption, I took the remaining oranges out of the box and placed them in a bowl on the kitchen counter. I grabbed a couple for an attempt at bathing chicken in orange juice - baking breasts covered in a sauce of honey, garlic, cumin and orange juice. It was one of those recipes that sounded better than it tasted.

Then one night, I braised some Belgian endive in orange juice and, hallelujah, I had a winner. The endive, with its white, sometimes bitter leaves, turned brown. Helped along by the orange juice and some brown sugar, it had pleasing dulcet flavors.

It was a keeper, a dish I plan to make again. Especially since I still have about two dozen oranges, sitting on the kitchen counter, their sweetness ebbing with every tick of the clock.

braised belgian endive in orange juice

(serves 4)

2 tablespoons butter

4 Belgian endives, whole, damaged leaves removed

1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

2 tablespoons brown sugar

salt and pepper to taste

Put the butter in a medium to large nonstick skillet with a lid, over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add the endives and cook, turning once or twice until they begin to brown.

Add the orange juice and brown sugar and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook over the lowest possible heat, until very tender, about 45 minutes. Uncover and turn up the heat a bit to evaporate any remaining liquid.

From "How to Cook Everything," by Mark Bittman

Per serving: : 100 calories, 1 gram protein, 6 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 12 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 15 milligrams cholesterol, 4 milligrams sodium

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