IT'S THE BALLAD of I-95, traveling south.
Virginia . . . hams.
North Carolina . . . towels.
South Carolina . . . fireworks.
Georgia . . . fruitcake.
Florida . . . Indian River citrus fruits.
The smart traveler going south will resist the temptation to stop at every fruit stand on the highway, and head directly for the groves in which the oranges are grown. The selection is larger--in variety, grade and price. If you're lucky, you can even pick up pointers on how to buy the best oranges wherever you are.
The Indian River is in fact a narrow coastal waterway, 120 miles long, running parallel to Florida's coastline. Most of the citrus groves are on Merritt Island, which is actually a peninsula formed by the Indian River to the west and the Banana River, another coastal waterway, to the east.
To find Indian River citrus land, once you're south of Daytona, follow the signs off Interstate 95 for the NASA Space Center. You'll know it when you see it--by the broad-crowned 30-foot trees, heavy with glossy green leaves and laden with ripe, round oranges.
Two names keep cropping up in the orange biz here. The Crisafullis and Policicchios came to Merritt Island shortly after the turn of the century and have been growing oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, tangelos and lemons ever since.
Carolina Policicchio, a Crisafulli by birth, owns and manages Policicchio Groves, which she started with 20 acres that were given to her by her father. The orchard has grown to the point where she doesn't even know its acreage anymore. Her brother Ben runs Crisafulli Fruit Groves just down the road. Policicchio says she was 5 years old when her family moved to Merritt Island from New York in 1919, but her curly black hair and round cheeks make her look much younger.
For most of us, the week between Christmas and New Year's is a holiday, but for Policicchio, it's the height of the busy season. It's hard to break her away from the clank of the orange-sorting machine, which separates the No. 1-grade oranges--larger, firmer, and of shipping quality--from the No. 2 oranges--smaller and softer, available only at the stand (at unbelievable prices). A bushel of No. 2 navels costs $5.50 now, at the peak of the season; a half-bushel of No. 1 navels costs $5.95. The Policicchios will ship them; a bushel of navels (35 to 40 big oranges), including shipping, costs $24.95.
Whether you buy oranges in Florida or in a northern store, Policicchio advises sticking to the variety that is currently in season. In January, the best bets are the navel orange for eating, hamlin or pineapple oranges for juicing, and the mineola or honeybell tangelo, a large, red, melt-in-your mouth hybrid of the tangerine and the grapefruit. Soon, Policicchio says, she will start harvesting the king orange, one of her favorites. "It comes in about the last of January or February and peels like a big tangerine,' she says.
Begin to ask for temple oranges in mid-January and honey tangerines the first of February. Wait until the first of April or even later for valencias. "They start shipping the valencia out in April," Policicchio says, "but I don't like it till June."
The color of an orange's skin reflects the weather it met while on the bough. Cold weather makes an orange oranger, but this year has been particularly warm. It's been a good year for growing oranges, says Policicchio, but many of them are ripening green. "We don't do any color adding," she says. "The big packing houses do. They gas the oranges to make them turn orange, because people buy what they think looks prettiest."
Policicchio Groves welcomes inquiries about shipping fruit northward: 5780 North Courtenay Parkway, Merritt Island, Fla. 32952 (305-452-4866). ORANGE BEAN SOUP (4 to 6 servings) 1 pound dried navy beans 3 cloves garlic 1 tablespoon cooking oil 1 large onion, thinly sliced 1 tablespoon honey 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard Dash cayenne pepper 3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice 1/2 cup tomato sauce
Wash navy beans thoroughly. Either soak overnight in 3 cups water, then boil with garlic for about 1 1/2 hours until soft; or using electric slow cooker, place beans, garlic and 3 cups water in pot and cook at high temperature about 4 hours. Whichever way you choose, cook beans and garlic in water until beans are soft and water amounts to about 2 cups total. In a frying pan, heat oil, then saute' onions until soft. Sprinkle over them honey, dry mustard and cayenne pepper, then stir in orange juice and tomato sauce. Gently heat to thicken briefly, then stir all into cooked beans. May be served immediately or refrigerated for later reheating. ORANGE CHOPS (4 servings) 4 to 8 lamb chops, depending on size 1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice 1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce 1/4 cup white wine 1 teaspoon rosemary 1/2 teaspoon thyme 1 large onion, thinly sliced 1 large navel orange, thinly sliced
The night before you serve this dish, arrange chops in a single layer in a glass, enameled or stainless steel baking pan. Combine orange juice, worcestershire and wine, then pour over chops as a marinade. Sprinkle dried herbs over chops as well. Cover and refrigerate. The next day, turn chops and spoon marinade over them. Bring chops to room temperature before cooking them.
Spoon marinade once more over chops, and arrange onion and orange slices alternately over lamb chops. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. ORANGE SLAW (8 servings) 1 cabbage 2 onions 2 navel oranges, peeled 1/4 cup mayonnaise 1/4 cup plain yogurt 1/2 teaspoon honey 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon dill seed
Grate cabbage. Mince onions finely. Slice oranges, then dice them into 1/2-inch cubes. Combine oranges with cabbage and onions. Mix remaining ingredients together separately as a dressing, then toss with slaw. Serve cold.