I'm Still Hungry

  (Victoria Pearson)

Anyone who doesn't think citrus can be better than sex hasn't tasted a Page tangerine like the one I just peeled and ate. Everything about citrus fills the senses and engages me: the smell of the orange blossoms, the sight of the fruit glowing like polka dots against a deep green background of leaves, the feel of the textured skin of a Kiefer lime, the taste of seedless Kishu tangerines, even the sound of the breeze rustling the leaves around giant pummelos has a quality unmatched in any other type of orchard.

And the appeal, to use a tired pun, doesn't end there. There is almost nothing culinary that citrus cannot improve. If there is another ingredient that lends itself so brilliantly to either a savory or sweet preparation, I can't think of it: recipes like classic lemon meringue pie, Szechuan orange chicken, Meyer lemon whiskey sour, Seville orange marmalade, Moroccan preserved lemons, rice with Kiefer lime leaves, lemon chicken, Key lime pie, Brown Derby orange cake made with blood oranges—the list goes on and on.

When I lived in Manhattan, I grew Meyer lemon trees in my apartment. The most successful harvest was eight fruit. It wasn't long after the trees died that I moved back to California. I'm not saying their death made me realize I was homesick for the Golden State, but it makes a certain sense. After all, my fantasy was to have a backyard orchard with every citrus variety known to man—and that certainly was not going to happen in Chelsea.

For years I had been enjoying Pixie tangerines grown by husband-and-wife team Jim Churchill and Lisa Brenneis at their orchard in Ojai. So when I started to plan this article, I couldn't think of a better place to get to the heart of the best citrus.

The couple grow their fruit organically and have an amazing variety of tangerines, grapefruits and avocados on approximately 17 acres. Jim and Lisa's philosophy is simple: Make every effort to get all their fruit to taste as good as it can. And they work hard to market their tangerines as artisanal products.

As I was making the preparations for my visit, it occurred to me that although I'm a California native and have many friends who live in Ojai, I hadn't actually been there before. And even though everyone spoke about the region in superlatives, I was still stunned by Ojai's beauty. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I would think of the apex of citrus groves as a very special place. Before Jim took me on a tour (the orchards are located in the eastern end of the Ojai Valley), he showed me an aerial map, explaining that his father bought 40 acres in 1970 for his retirement. Since then, his dad has sold off all but the acres Jim and Lisa farm.

The walk through the orchards was worth waiting for. For someone who loves citrus like I do, it was an embarrassment of riches: Every time I turned the corner of a row of trees, delightful surprises awaited, including Pixie and Kishu tangerines, Mexican limes, Oroblanco grapefruit, Meyer lemons and pummelos. In addition to the Page and Pixie tangerines, some of my other favorites were the Cocktail grapefruit; Owari Satsuma and Gold Nugget tangerines; and Fuerte, Hass and Bacon avocados.

As if saving the best for last, Jim showed me a few trees called Australian finger limes. These fruits were simply beautiful, shaped like miniature cucumbers and almost invisible until you thinking about cooking with these true citrus jewels: perhaps a piece of fish with a citrus beurre blanc and a garnish with the lime pearls? Actually, there wasn't a fruit I saw that wasn't a culinary inspiration: marmalades, cocktails, syrups, gremolatas and desserts all tumbled through my imagination. What a meal I could make!

As we walked the orchards, I kept noticing the pruned branches of the orange trees lying around. I thought about asking if I could collect some to take home and use as fuel for my grill. But then I had an inspiration: Why not cook a paella—one of my favorite dishes—over an open fire fueled by orange branches right here in Jim and Lisa's orchard, using locally grown ingredients like Santa Barbara spot prawns and greens for a salad? After all, in Valencia, Spain, where arguably some of the most traditional paellas are found, orange branches are used for fuel.

Jim thought it was a great idea, so we made a date for me to come back up. And since paella is a group meal, we invited some local friends to join us. The guests included Jane Handel, editor of Edible Ojai, and her son, Hudson; Claud Mann, host of the TBS show Dinner & a Movie and publisher of Edible Ojai, with his wife, Perla Batalla, once a backup singer for Leonard Cohen, and their daughter, Eva; Steve Sprinkel and his wife, Olivia Chase, owners of a local café and store called the Farmer and the Cook (Sprinkel has been growing vegetables organically since the '70s and has about 14 acres planted in Ojai); and Jeri Oshima, who has the most wonderful restaurant, Treasure Beach and Café, and her daughter, Leilani.

It was raining the morning of the day we scheduled our al fresco feast. No matter—I was so thrilled to be living out my paella fantasy even rain could not deter me. Jim, Lisa and the others probably thought I was crazy, but my enthusiasm must have been infectious, because everyone was up for the adventure. On the way up to Ojai, I stopped in Oxnard to pick up live spot prawns from my friend Steve Moore, a fish broker.

When I arrived, Jim had the orange-tree branches stacked in a pile, all ready to go. I prepared the Tuscan grill—a portable, L-shape stand that can be set up in a fireplace or over an open flame—started the fire and immediately placed my paella pan on the grate.

The purist in me would have preferred using a traditional paella pan, but there were so many of us I had to improvise with a larger vessel. One of the secrets to paella is beginning with a very hot fire, then as it burns down, the rice slowly finishes cooking, forming a perfect crust on the bottom.

As the guests arrived, instead of congregating in the kitchen, they began gathering around the fire. While the paella was cooking, I served a pitcher of Negronis made with Page tangerines, Hendrick's gin, Campari and Carpano Antica sweet vermouth. Then the rain stopped. Jim said he couldn't believe it: Not only could I cook, I could command the clouds.

Mann, who is also a chef, helped me keep the fire stoked and turn the heavy paella pan as needed. When we saw steam rising, he yelled, "I think you are getting the perfect soccorat!" Soccorat is that crust on the bottom of an authentic paella—it isn't really paella without it. My apprehension about the unorthodox pan subsided.

When the paella was done, we took it into the shed where we had set up the table for lunch. As a finishing touch, I topped the simple paella with a gremolata made of four types of citrus from the orchard. To accompany the main course, we served salad made with Sprinkel's just-picked romaine tossed with a favorite dressing of mine, crème-fraîche vinaigrette, and some local wines from the Ojai Vineyard. We decided on the 2007 Riesling Kick on Ranch and the 2004 Roll Ranch Syrah, both of which were perfect with the paella.

For dessert, Oshima served an unbelievably delicious tangerine sherbet she'd made, accompanied by lemon shortbread cookies, and everyone wanted seconds and thirds.

So, in the final analysis, did the orange branches make the difference in cooking the paella? The answer is yes, indeed they did! I've made many paellas in my life, but the sweet, smoky quality to this one really set off the ingredients and made it uniquely delicious.

Everything came together—the food, the wine and the company—to make the afternoon a perfect experience. As I was packing up my grill, Jim told me, “I will always save my orange wood for you. Let's make this a tradition.”

To order all varieties of citrus, check out tangerineman.com.

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