06 March 2012

Gypsy Kitchens: Citrus Season

As we already mentioned, it's citrus season here in Cyprus. Groves cover large stretches of the landscape and are heavy with fruit. Lemons, grapefruits, and especially oranges are impossible to escape. And why try? Costas, our host at Asty Hotel in Nicosia, insisted we take as many oranges from the breakfast room as we could. "I just bought 10 kilos this morning!" he said, inspecting our pickings and deciding they were too slim. Our rental in Agios Athanasios came with a stocked fruit bowl. If we ran out, there was always the daily citrus vendor. Clementines were set out in wicker baskets at outdoor tables in Girne, the healthiest bar snack we'd ever seen.
At first, we kept pace. Two juiced oranges with breakfast, two more for lunch, one in the evening. They are incredibly thick-skinned, which initially fooled us into thinking they were under-ripe. Each orange, once peeled, is about a third of the size it appeared. But, just like great shellfish, any thought about "so much work for so little return" is immediately dashed once the flesh hits your mouth. We have never had oranges like this before. And the mandarins - divine.
Soon, we had to actually buy our own oranges. All of our lovely hand-outs consumed. As soon as the thought came to mind, we only had to look five feet in any direction to find the nearest citrus vendor. With such an abundance absolutely everywhere, it's impossible to buy less than a bundle. The fruit was warm to the touch, sun-soaked, as we placed one after another in our bag. The vendor looked at the amount, gave us a price and then threw a few more in for good measure.
As anyone who has ever gone apple picking knows, there is such a thing as too much of a good fruit. Looking for ways to use all of our perfect Cypriot oranges we created three easy salads, using other ingredients that have been popping up on plates and market stands all around us: beets, chickpeas, local cheese and anchovies. Each salad is designed to utilize one of the orange's great qualities, its sweetness, its sourness and its juiciness.
The first salad is the most traditional, meaning that its base is a leafy green. Complimenting the orange's sweetness, we paired it with bitter rucola, spicy red onion and salty anchovies. Canned fish is a Gypsy Kitchen favorite not just because they keep so well, but because we don't always have a bottle of olive oil available. Use anchovies packed in oil so that you can just drizzle the liquid out of the can right onto your salad. The orange slices provide the acid needed to make it perfectly dressed.
The second salad brings out the orange's tartness and sourness. It's difficult for anything to taste super sweet when put up against a beet. We advise against canned beets, but those pre-cooked whole beets in plastic found in some produce aisles work well if you don't want to cook them yourself. To ground those two vibrant flavors, add cubes of semi-hard mild cheese - cubed so that it will be a third in the trio of ingredients as opposed to glomming on to the other two. We used local dry anari, made from a blend of sheep, cow and goat's milk. Mozzarella would work as well. As would brebis. If you use feta, don't add any extra salt. In Cyprus, parsley is ubiquitous and it's easy to find a big, fresh bunch at any store. As in the other salad, we added red onion, dicing it for some crunch. Dress with olive oil, a little balsamic vinegar and salt.
The third salad plays off of the orange's juiciness. We've been eating a lot of humus in Cyprus so chickpeas seemed only natural. They make a wonderful salad ingredient, but can be a little starchy, even dry. In come the oranges, along with a good amount of parsley to add a little flatness to all the round flavors. We added a little olive oil, red onion and some chili powder, which goes very well with both chickpeas and orange and injects a little Turkish-Cypriot flavor.
The easiest way to add orange to a salad is to cut it into slices, unpeeled. Cut a slit into each slice, unlatching the ring, and pull straight so that the little triangle of orange stick up like teeth from the peel. It's really easy to catch and remove seeds this way and the fruit is easier to work with. Just pull each piece off (working over your salad so that any discarded juice doesn't go to waste). Smaller pieces will mix into your salad more evenly.
Three pieces of fruit remain. If we had the means, we would attempt preserving them, like lemons, as they were served to us a few nights ago at Skourouvinnos Tavern. Chances are, they will be mixed into some sheep yogurt at breakfast tomorrow. And, then, we'll just have to buy some more. Because we can't help ourselves. 'Tis the season.

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