Orange you glad it's January?

Orange you glad it's January?

This month is the peak time for oranges, and most stores are loaded with them.

Not only is an orange a bright spot in winter, it offers considerable health benefits. Most shoppers know oranges are an excellent source of vitamin C — one fruit provides 100 percent of the daily requirement. Oranges also have considerable vitamin A, fiber and potassium.

There's more in the way of orange varieties than color might suggest. Look closely at size, shape and texture. There are thick- and thin-skinned types. Some can be peeled in seconds. Many are seedless.

Flesh varies from brilliant red or orange to salmon-pink to orange streaked with crimson. Their flavor profiles are just as different, from sweet to super-sweet to sweet-tart. Some are more chin-drippingly juicy than others.

And some citrus may be even more precious this year after farmers in California's San Joaquin Valley fought last week to protect about $1.5 billion worth of fruit on their trees.

Prolonged temperatures in the mid-20s or below cause damage to citrus crops.

Mandarins are more susceptible to cold than other citrus and start to freeze at about 32 F. More of the fruit has been grown in colder areas outside the traditional citrus belt as the variety's popularity has soared in recent years.

One of those farms is Johansen Ranch, a certified-organic, family-run operation in Orland, Calif., that supplies Ashland Food Co-op. About the closest source of citrus to the Rogue Valley, Johanson's distance of less than 200 miles from Ashland fits into many Co-op customers' definition of a local food producer, says the store's produce department manager, Barry Haynes.

The farm in the northern Sacramento Valley produces satsuma mandarins, clementines and navel oranges, which already have been in good supply this winter, says Haynes. Blood oranges are just coming on, and the Co-op will have the deeply hued Moro variety, as well as the lighter Tarocco, through February, says Haynes.

"They just have a very distinct, sweet-tart flavor," he says, adding that blood oranges can be eaten on their own but are "almost used as an ingredient."

The presence of the pigment anthocyanin, also found in berries, explains blood oranges' astringency, says Mary Shaw, culinary educator for the Co-op.

"They're really the only citrus that has that kind of anti-oxidant quality," she says, explaining that the darker the orange, the more sour. "I think they're really good up against other flavors."

A popular Sicilian preparation for blood oranges is with fennel, also in season at the same time, says Shaw. Or try using the sections in any salad or the juice for acid in a homemade vinaigrette.

"They're so gorgeous," says Shaw.

The Co-op also stocks Cara Cara navels, another specialty variety that will run into spring. If fully ripe, that variety's predominant flavor is sweet, Shaw says.

High levels of sugar in this year's California orange crop help to inhibit freezing, affording the fruits some measure of protection, The Associated Press reported. California is the country's second largest citrus producer, with the majority of its crop sold on the fresh produce market while most of Florida's goes to juice.

The citrus season runs from early November to April or May, depending on the fruit. Some varieties bear fruit as late as July, and oranges left on the tree will not overripen. Buy fruit heavy for its size and without blemishes or soft spots. Most will keep at room temperature for about a week and in the refrigerator for three weeks.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email McClatchy News Service and The Associated Press contributed to this story.