Produce Pete: Navel Oranges, the Season’s Main Squeeze

For local fruit and vegetable expert "Produce Pete," fresh navel oranges are a sure sign of Christmastime.

A great source of vitamin C and fiber, California navel oranges are considered by many to be the best oranges in the world for eating out of hand.Photo courtesy of Susan Bloom

All my life, perhaps nothing has reminded me of my mother more than navel oranges at Christmas.

Growing up in Bergenfield to Italian immigrant parents in the ’50s and ’60s, money was always tight and, while northeastern apples were plentiful in our area all fall and winter, oranges from Florida or California were an exotic novelty for our family. I’ll never forget how mom would wrap navel oranges in colored foil or paper and put them in my and my younger brother David’s stockings for Christmas—and the joy we’d get when we’d unwrap them! We never wasted anything in our house—not even the peels from the oranges, which my mom would put in a used tin pie plate with water and place on the radiator to give our house a great citrusy aroma.

I remember once telling these stories to my granddaughter Alexandra, to which she rolled her eyes and said “really, Poppy?” It’s a whole different era today—one where kids get expensive video games or keys to cars as gifts, not oranges—but I still get choked up when I think of what mom did with so little and the love and care she always put into making our holidays special. To me, that’s what families and holidays are all about.

All About Oranges

You’ll see oranges in the supermarket all year, but navels—which are renowned for their clean, discernible sections—are available now through Easter and are truly at their best and sweetest right around Christmas. While the two most familiar varieties of oranges are navels and Valencias, California navel oranges are considered by many to be the best oranges in the world for eating out of hand. They have a meaty flesh, their thick rinds are easy to peel, the segments separate easily, and they have no seeds. All navel oranges have a navel at the blossom end (an opening with a convoluted interior that looks like, well, a navel); some have a very small navel while others have a larger one.

While California is the largest producer of navel oranges, it’s not always safe to assume that a Florida orange is a Valencia juice orange and a California orange is a navel. Texas and Florida also grow navel oranges, which are on the market between late fall and the end of January. The Florida navel comes in all sizes, from tennis-ball to softball size, and doesn’t have as much color as the California variety; the rind will be bronze to light orange, with a richer orange color later in the season. Florida navels are, of course, seedless, but they have a higher juice content and a thinner rind that’s not as easy to peel as California navels. Despite their relatively pale color, they’re good oranges and very sweet. Here again, check the blossom end—if it’s stamped ‘Florida’ but has a navel, it’s a navel orange.

Navel oranges. Photo courtesy of Susan Bloom

Five Fun Facts About Oranges

—There are over 600 different varieties of oranges.
—An orange tree is highly productive and with proper care can produce fruit for well up to 70-80 years.
—Oranges are outstanding sources of vitamin C and fiber.
—Florida is the top orange producer in the U.S., but Brazil leads the world in orange production, producing about half of the world’s orange juice and 80 percent of the world’s orange concentrate.
—The word “orange” hails from a Sanskrit dialect and translates to “fragrant.”

Selecting and Storing Oranges

Whatever the variety, look for oranges that are shiny and heavy in the hand. Also check the scent—the orange should smell good, not fermented, and the rind should never feel puffy. (It shouldn’t feel like there’s any space between the rind and the flesh.) There should also be no spotting, no signs of shriveling, and no white patches on the rind.

Unlike more perishable tangerines, oranges can be kept out at room temperature for three or four days with little problem. Refrigerate them in a plastic bag or in the crisper drawer and they’ll keep well for one to two weeks.

In the Napolitano family, my wife Bette’s famous navel orange cake represents the best of the holiday season and is always a big hit in our household at Christmastime. We hope you like it too and wish you all the best for a happy and healthy holiday season!

Bette’s Best Navel Orange Cake

Produce Pete discusses the nuances of navel oranges with anchorwoman Jen Maxfield during a segment of NBC Weekend Today in New York. Photo courtesy of courtesy of NBC/Produce Pete

Ingredients:

For cake:
½ pound (2 sticks) butter
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 cups sugar
1 cup sour cream
½ teaspoon baking soda
6 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Rind of one orange, grated
5 tablespoons fresh navel orange juice

For icing:
1½ cups confection sugar
2 tablespoons fresh navel orange juice
1 tablespoon navel orange rind, grated

Directions:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a tube pan and set aside. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together and then add sour cream. Sift flour and baking soda together. Add to creamed mixture, alternately with eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add extract, navel orange rind, and navel orange juice and stir to combine. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes. Cool cake in pan for about 10 minutes and then release and cool completely on a wire rack. Mix together icing ingredients with a whisk until the mixture has a thick liquid consistency. Drizzle over cake while still warm.

About “Produce Pete” Napolitano
With over 65 years of experience in the produce industry, New Jersey’s own “Produce Pete” Napolitano is a renowned fruit and vegetable expert, author, and television personality who’s appeared on a highly-popular segment on NBC’s Weekend Today in New York broadcast every Saturday mornings for over 27 years.  For more information, visit Pete’s website.

About Susan Bloom
A contributor to New Jersey Monthly and a variety of other well-known local and national publications, Susan Bloom is an award-winning New Jersey-based freelance writer who covers topics ranging from health and lifestyle to business, food and more. She’s collaborated with Produce Pete on a broad range of articles for nearly a decade.

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