The Bitter Orange

          Lots of foods taste different when they are grown in different places.  The French call this concept "terroir" and go to great lengths in granting legal protection to, for example, what can be labelled "Champagne" (only sparkling wine made from certain varieties of grapes grown in the well defined Champagne region of France) or "Camembert" (a certain cheese, but only when made from Norman cow's milk)

          We have experienced this ourselves in our travels.  You might recall my previous rantings about how much better and sweeter the bananas are down here when they're ripened on the vine rather than picked while green and shipped to the USA in a box.  Another example of this is the bitter orange.

         I first heard about "sour oranges" in the Bahamas where they were squeezed on fresh conch salad.  Then in Trinidad we discovered the birthplace of Angustora Bitters.  Every bar in Wisconsin seemed to have a bottle of this on the rail and a few dashes were added to every Old Fashioned or Manhattan ordered.  In the islands, its also served in 7up, and touted as a remedy for stomach aches.  And though the exact ingredients is a secret as closely guarded as the formula for Coca Cola, it is widely accepted that the bitter essence of orange peels plays a large part.

      A short while later we visited the island of Curacao, where a blue colored, orange flavored liqueur with the same name is distilled.  The story was told here that early settlers brought Valencia oranges from Spain to grow here.  But the hot climate, irregular rains and poor soil resulted in harvests of oranges that never developed their typical sweetness.  Wondering what to do with baskets of oranges too bitter to eat, some enterprising fellow fermented them and distilled Curacao liqueur.

      Which brings me to the story behind this month's recipe.  I was at the market in Cartagena a few weeks ago when I bought a big bag of locally grown oranges.  They were still green, but I was assured that they were sweet, and good for making juice.  So we took out our juice press one morning and went to work.  The results were unlike any fresh juice I had drank back in the states.  The orange peels here in South America seem to be especially rich in orange oil/ much that a light sheen floated on the top of our glasses.  The orange juice flavor was mingled with a slightly bitter and hot sharpness that lingered like a jalapeno pepper on your lips after a sip. 

      The fresh juice didn't go over too well with the family, so I was left struggling with what to do with the rest of my bag of oranges.  So it occurred to me that the same faintly bitter, peppery flavor that was unwelcome at breakfast might make a good meat marinade/flavoring at suppertime.  This orange chicken is not the sweet, syrupy kind you might get at a Chinese restaurant.  The chicken comes out with a clean, fresh orange aroma, and subtle complex flavors that would suggest it is a lot harder to make than it really is.  To get the unique flavor though, you need to really press the orange peels to get some of the essential oils out of it.  And if you're not sure, you could also add some Angostura Bitters to the marinade.

Orange Chicken

4 fresh oranges, quartered and juiced in a juice press

2 cloves of garlic, chopped

1 Tbsp salt

1/2 tsp. paprika

2 chicken breasts with skin on

     Mix the first 3 ingredients in a ziplock bag.  Add the peel of one of the oranges, then add the chicken breasts.  Squeeze out as much air as possible from the bag and marinate in the refrigerator for about 4 hours (or more)

     Put chicken in a 9x9 pan and pour about half the marinade over the top.  Bake in a medium oven until done (about 20-30 minutes)