At a glance there doesn't seem to be anything very remarkable about a navel orange. It's one of those staple ingredients that we take for granted, like lettuce and onions. But the navel orange has changed the course of Southern California history. In fact, you could rank it alongside the motion picture and aerospace industries as one of the most important factors in how we became who we are.
There's a terrific new book on the subject coming out this month, David Boule's "The Orange and the Dream of California", which blends history and lots of really cool ephemera to tell the story of how that happened. But the short version is that it was the navel orange, imported from Brazil in the 1870s, that turbocharged the California citrus industry, giving rise to the massive orange plantings in Riverside, Los Angeles, Ventura and, yes, Orange counties.
Indeed, the original parent Washington navel orange tree — after suffering through some health setbacks — is still growing in Riverside, enshrined in a park dedicated to it at the corner of Magnolia and Arlington avenues.
History aside, the navel orange, which is harvested in winter (as opposed to summer's Valencias), has an exceptionally rich flavor, adaptable to all sorts of dishes (though it makes excellent juice, you do need to drink it fresh; a chemical compound called limonin turns it bitter after it sits).
How to choose: A deeply colored peel is pretty, but not necessarily the best indicator of quality. Indeed, later in the season, perfectly good oranges left on the tree sometimes experience "re-greening", which affects the appearance but not the flavor. Instead, choose oranges that are firm to the touch and heavy for their size.
How to store: Oranges have relatively thick rinds and can store at room temperature for several days. To keep them longer refrigerate them. If they came in plastic bags, it's a good idea to remove them to avoid trapped moisture.