Coming from a Mexican family with an amazing group of cooks for aunts, grandaunts, second cousins and my phenomenal grandmother Lupe meant that I was surrounded by food: cooking, talking, eating, making, reading about, growing, learning. Food was everywhere and it was never just simple because in my family, food wasn’t food unless it was intricately layered in flavor and processes. Even the simplest of things were uncannily complex in one way or another. My grandmother taught me early on that color flavor, aroma, taste and even the plate you served it on was important and that there was joy to be found in creating something from the garden to the table.
It stands to reason that she, who taught me so much was the axis of my world and she was. I was her constant observer, her shadow and she was rarely without me in tow. My mother told me once that she remembered when I was just starting to eat fruit, my grandmother would cut tiny bits of strawberry, putting them on a toothpick one at a time and dipping them in honey to feed me bit by bit. I still love strawberries and I did the same with my granddaughter.
My grandmother was intensely interesting to me and she seemed the most magical of people. She grew up (the first to be born here in the US) on a ranch in Piru, California where they grew oranges. Her young life was poor and it must have been tremendously hard. Migrant farmworkers have never had it, easy (check the UFW website to see how many have died from heatstroke this year). If it had been me picking oranges season after season, I’d be heartily sick of them but my grandma Lupe loved them. Nothing made her happier than when on of my great uncles would drive down from Piru with a big box of freshly harvested Valencias for her. She’d sit out in the patio in back, take her paring knife and long curly waterfalls of peel would fall quickly into her apron in one long swoop. They never broke and she did it without thinking. I’d sit across from her goggle-eyed and wishing I could do it too. I still can’t without it breaking. She’d look at me, smile and hand me a section, popping it into my mouth. “It tastes like sunshine, doesn’t it, mi reina del cielo? (queen of heaven)” her name for me.
Another of her favorites were the chocolate-covered orange sticks my grandfather would bring her from the Thrifty’s in Glendale. He’d only bring a box every once in a while but those days were special. My grandmother would always be thrilled and giggly as a young girl. My grandfather would always hold his hands behind his back before bringing out the box and stand there with his boyish, blushing face holding it out to his sweetheart. I always felt the deep love they had for each other in those moments, love that spilled out like sugar all over everything and everyone around them. She’d smile and take one, just one and let me have it. The rest were hers and she hid them and kept the box for a long time, making it last. I’d savor my one piece and to me, it was the best thing in the world.
I don’t think she knew about orangettes or we would have made them. I was blessed to have a grandmother that gave me anything and everything I needed for cooking if I wanted to make something. She never gave it a second thought – I got the pan, the spice, the expensive nuts – whatever I needed, I got it. I know now what a sacrifice it must have been to two senior citizens on a fixed income with bills and family obligations, but she made it happily and I never once knew it was anything but a joy. I wonder if she knew what a difference cooking would make in my life, what a wonderful gift she gave not just to me but to my children, grandchildren and the people who share my life. I expect not. She was pure love, that woman and everything she did was filled with it.
I wish I could have made these for her, but I made them for Jasmine and Aiden and I think my grandmother is watching and smiling.
- What you’ll need:
Oranges, a thick skinned type like Valencias (you can do these with tangerine as well)
Water and sugar (ratio is about 1 ¼ c. water to 3 c of sugar)
A sharp knife
Sugar for dusting them
Chocolate that has been tempered
Scrub the oranges well and dry them off.
Cut off each end so they sit flat on a cutting board
Take your knife and score them just to the edge of the orange in about ¼ inch strips.
Peel away each strip, leaving rind on the orange but not the orange itself. Trim off any bits of orange.
Jasmine will show you how to peel off a section and what to do with the leftover orange.
I tried Jennifer Yu’s method of blanching the peels three times to do away with the bitterness but I still got some that was a little bitter when I tasted it as it cooled. However, once it dried completely the bitterness was completely gone. Weird, but cool.
Once blanched, I drained my orange peels and made my sugar syrup. Bring 1 ¼ c. water to boil and add the 3 c. sugar and stir till dissolved. Let it come to a full boil, then reduce heat to the lowest simmer. Add the orange peels and let simmer, stirring occasionally until they are transparent. Mine took about 40 minutes.
Working carefully (sugar syrup burns are nasty), scoop them out onto drying racks with parchment paper underneath to catch the drips. When they are cool enough to touch you can roll them in sugar, but I prefer not too. I like them with just the chocolate but I sugared some for the grandkids. This time, I added a few sprigs of rosemary to the left over syrup to candy them and flavor the syrup for another recipe. The syrup will be the base for a rosemary citrus ade (thanks to @peckedbyducks for the idea) and the candied sprigs will be garnish for something later this month.
The orange peels take several hours before they are dry but once they are you can either store them as is or dip into tempered chocolate. For these I used bittersweet chocolate with a little butter. I took another hint from Jennifer Yu and dried the chocolate ones on a cookie sheet lined in parchment rather than on the racks. Thanks Jennifer!
Store in airtight container or eat them. Most of mine will be gone, but I’m saving a few for something I have planned to make later this month.
Oh and Aiden? I so busted you stealing orangette when you thought I was distracted by photographing it. Thing is, I photographed you. Sneaky, sneaky, sneaky buddy and very cute.
This post is dedicated to my grandmother, the UFW, Dolores Huerta, César Estrada Chávez and to farmworkers everywhere trabajando en la pisca. Show some love by donating to the UFW donation page.
Mexica tiahui y buen provecho.
For more pictures, please visit the photo gallery page here. If you like the photos, they are courtesy of my son Albert, who with his typical generosity of spirit sent his mom a new Olympus Evolt camera to take her food pictures with. Albert is former Navy from age 17 to 29 who was commended for saving lives and is currently in Iraq as a contractor working with the Army. I miss him every day and no matter how tough he is, he will always be my little boy. Love you mijo!