Blood oranges bring an intensity that can brighten dark winter days

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Serendipitously the harsh, grey weather in January also heralds the welcome start of the blood orange season.

While they look like a regular orange on the outside they reveal a deep red streaked flesh. They are at their sweetest now due to cold nights that have followed warm Mediterranean winter days. The best varieties come from Sicily and though not cheap, they provide a burst of sunshine to an otherwise dreary month.

Some retailers have tried to rename them “blush” oranges in case people find the word blood upsetting, but the word blush really doesn’t cut it in terms of describing the robust, decadence that belies this fruit.

Citrus generally is at peak condition and you could substitute regular oranges – they just won’t have that sultriness. If a regular orange is a good old reliable pair of slippers, blood oranges are the Louboutins of the fruit world – not for every day use but will make you feel absolutely fabulous.

The first time I bought blood oranges was in Borough Market in London about 14 years ago, along with an Amalfi lemon the size of a small rugby ball, and they were eye wateringly expensive (I could have bought a good pair of shoes for the price) but I’ll never forget the exquisite sweetness and intensely orange flavour.

I squeezed some to mix with Prosecco and used the rest in a salad with shaved fennel. Now I’m more aware of using every part of the fruit.

Last year I got some in St George’s Market in Belfast (considerably cheaper than London) and used the rind to make Orangecello – the orange liqueur equivalent of Limoncello. I’ve included the recipe which involves soaking the pared rind in vodka for a week and then mixing in a sugar syrup. I found a bottle at the back of a cupboard from last year and it was like welcoming an old friend – a warm surprise.

Classically oranges are paired with duck and this is still a good stalwart. Add some orange halves to the roasting tray when you’re cooking the duck to make a great sauce. They work equally well with roast chicken and adding some fennel seeds, chilli and garlic really soups up a boring bird in the flavour department.

My other recipe is for pork cooked with oranges, spices and soy. The juices are boiled to make an unctuous sauce to spoon over the pork – redolent of ginger, cinnamon and star anise infused citrus. Perfect food for a dull day. You could have this with cooked greens and rice but I’ve added a recipe for a red cabbage slaw – the crisp vegetable zingy with vinegar and mustard is a lovely foil for the rich, soft meat.

Oranges and oily fish are delicious together and my recipe uses seasonal, earthy beetroot in the mix too. The mackerel is roasted with paprika and blackpepper and served with a salad of grilled blood orange, beetroot and the zingy crunch of red onion. Mackerel is available, weather permitting, and at its best at the moment. It’s healthy on its own but when you add oranges and beetroot into the mix you create a dish that not only tastes wonderful but makes you feel great too.

These citrus treasures aren’t around for long so make the most of them. Don’t worry though as beautiful pink hued forced rhubarb and Sicilian lemons will be along soon to add even more sparkle to a time of year that definitely needs it.