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Blood Oranges: Change You Can Believe In

I would like to send President Obama a box of blood oranges. No, I am not trying to send him some secret Sicilian political message. It would be more along the lines of a gentle reminder that Americans should eat food that is distinctive, refreshing and healthful.

Obama, who reportedly enjoys exploring different foods, would surely approve of fresh blood orange juice for breakfast or a salad of blood oranges and fennel for dinner. Indeed, there is hope that his commitment to change may extend to the American diet. Many celebrity chefs and food writers hope the new president will help promote a diet of sustainable foods and encourage Americans to eat more healthfully and expand their palates to new and uncommon tastes.

So, it could be fate that the presidential inauguration coincided with the peak of blood orange season, which runs from December to April.

Perhaps the most stunning variety of citrus, blood oranges are considered one of Sicily's most treasured crops. Historians believe that blood oranges were first cultivated during Arab rule in Sicily in the 9th and 10th centuries. Because of their opulent appearance and singular flavor, blood oranges initially were reserved for royalty. Over time, Sicilians realized that their prized blood oranges could become a source of wealth and began exporting them. Today, the fruit can be found in virtually every country in the world.

Blood oranges continue to thrive in Mediterranean climates such as Italy, Spain and Malta. California, with its Mediterranean-like climate, produces the majority of the U.S. crop, though Arizona, Texas and Florida grow some as well.

There are three main types of blood oranges: moro, tarocco and sanguinello. Moros are the most common blood oranges in U.S. markets. They have a bright orange rind blushed with red, and they're valued for their pleasingly sweet-tart flavor and consistently deep crimson flesh.

Taroccos are less flashy, with a rind that is usually monochromatic orange and less-vivid flesh. Though less popular than the moro in the U.S., they remain cherished throughout Europe, especially in Italy, for their delicate, sweet flavor.

Like a moro, a sanguinello often has a rose-tinted rind, yet its flesh is usually a lighter dappled mix of red and yellow.

When selecting blood oranges, look for unblemished, bright orange-colored fruit, some with an attractive rose-colored blush. The fruit should be heavy for its size and should emit a slightly sweet, floral fragrance. Blood oranges can be stored on the counter for several days or in a refrigerator fruit bin for up to a week. For the best flavor, bring the fruit to room temperature before eating.

Slicing into a blood orange is almost as exciting as eating one. With one quick pierce of the flesh, you will see instantly why they're called blood, or sanguine, oranges.

Anthocyanin, the same chemical that makes blueberries blue and cranberries red, gives the flesh their characteristic bloody color, which can range from pale scarlet to deep magenta, depending on the variety and stage of maturation.

This powerful antioxidant mops up cancer-causing free radicals in the body. Since the most brightly colored foods are also the ones packed with the most cancer-fighting antioxidants, blood oranges are a powerhouse of nutrition. At only 70 calories per fruit, they are a great source of vitamin C, fiber and potassium.

Blood oranges, however, are beloved for more than just their dazzling flesh and nutritional value. It's their flavor — like a subtly sweet orange that has been infused with tangy red grapefruit and hints of tart cherries and raspberries.

Blood oranges are delightful simply eaten out of hand, but don't stop there. In Sicily, freshly squeezed blood orange juice is a typical addition to the breakfast table. Blood oranges also make wonderfully aromatic marmalades and jams and can be cooked in a syrup of sugar, water and spices, then used as a dessert topping for pound cakes, cheesecakes and ice cream.

Like navel oranges, blood oranges are delicious in savory dishes. Sliced blood oranges add pizzazz to salads and salsas. Slightly cooking them mellows their acidity, which makes them ideal for chutneys and relishes that complement seafood, pork, chicken and duck.

Though farmers markets have the most delectable blood oranges, they are plentiful in specialty and organic markets. With their rising popularity over the past several years, they are being sold in most general supermarkets as well. You can even order them online.

All it would take is just one photo of Obama peeling a crimson, juicy blood orange for breakfast, and supermarkets wouldn't be able to keep up with demand — it would be a great new day for the American diet. That's why I would like to send President Obama a box of blood oranges, but I'm afraid that once the Secret Service opens it, there won't be any left for him.

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Susan Russo