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Gloriously gory

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I had countless "aha" culinary moments five years ago when I was at cooking school in Italy. The earliest one arrived on the first day of class. We were a group of 15 who had traveled from many countries to attend, bleary-eyed and disheveled in our newly unpacked chef's whites at 7 in the morning. At that hour, all I really cared about was coffee. But I remember being intrigued by the pitcher containing a garnet, red-pink liquid sitting on the breakfast table. I knew it was too dark to be grapefruit, and I knew that it was too early in the season for berries, so I scratched my jet-lagged head.

When I asked in Italian what the mysterious nectar was called, the kitchen helpers replied very matter-of-factly, "succo di arancia." Well, if I got my translation straight, that means orange juice. It was orange juice, all right, but it was the juice of something much more intense — the seductive blood orange.

The blood orange, a mutation of the sweet orange (Navel, Valencia, to name a few), has a deep red, almost plum-purple flesh that tastes like a mix of an orange and a raspberry. Although considered specialty fruit in this country, it's quite common in the Mediterranean, particularly in Sicily. Here, it grows in California, and too often is priced like an exotic gem. She's here only until February or March, and poof, is gone until next year — unless, of course, you fly to Italia.

Because her flesh is so gorgeous, she's lots of fun in the presentation department. Think salads. Here's an impromptu blood orange vinaigrette for arugula, watercress, spinach, fennel or whatever else rocks your leafy world.

BLOOD ORANGE VINAIGRETTE
Juice of two blood oranges (yields at least 1/2 cup)
1/4 cup sherry or red wine vinegarSalt to taste
1/4­1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Washed, dried and torn leaves of arugula, watercress, mizuna or greens of your choice
Optional: Separated segments of one blood orange, toasted slivered almonds, pinenuts, walnuts

Pour juice into a small mixing bowl. Add vinegar and mix with a whisk. Add salt; taste along the way. Mixture should be somewhat salty. With one hand, gradually pour in the olive oil to the juice-vinegar mixture, while whisking with the other hand. You'll notice the mixture emulsifying, coming together. Taste. Enough juice? Vinegar? Olive? Salt? This is your chance to make adjustments before pouring over your greens and tossing for your guests. Add orange segments and nuts, if using. Serve immediately.

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