What's in Season: Citrus
Winter's Edible Sunshine
When my winter kitchen seems drab and I start craving some culinary stimulation, it's frustrating to find our grocers grim with potatoes, turnips and tasteless hydroponic tomatoes. But last week as I visited one of my favorite produce markets and moved my shopping cart from the vegetable to fruit aisle, I felt like Dorothy leaving a black and white Kansas to arrive in a full color Oz. The fruit bins were stacked high with bright yellow, orange and green citrus and I was reminded that given the chance, nature works things out, as when it gives us our best lemons in the dead of winter.
Citrus is the sparkling high note of winter produce. New York doesn't have orange groves so we can't feel guilty about buying this fruit that's been all trucked or flown into our stores. Citrus is also the best of our winter fruits, filling the seasonal gap between apples and pears and the first cherries of spring. Plus there's all that nutrition and big wow flavor.
I love that its tastes are blindingly bright, as if nature knows we miss the sunshine and need some delicious intrusion to compensate for so many gray days. The dimpled skin turns each piece of fruit into a little package, making it easy to have a Clementine in our pocket or sitting on our desk. And citrus has big diversity: robust oranges, lemons, key limes, Persian limes, grapefruit, tender-skinned tangerines, tangelos, Satsumas from Louisiana, sweet Meyer lemons, and others. They all have some degree of acid and sugar and their rinds offer their own zest and oils.
More than most other fruits, citrus is so versatile that it can be used in dishes that are both savory and sweet. Certain ethnic cuisines make unique use of citrus as with Greek Avgolemono soup made with lemon, eggs and chicken stock and rice pudding scented with orange, Moroccan preserved lemons served with meat tangines, fist-sized Sicilian lemons used in salads with mint and almonds or sweet ricotta cakes, and intense, smooth lime curd served on English tea scones.
Cooking With Citrus
At The City Cook we often use citrus in our recipes but with winter here, we have some new ideas for using its big personality. Easy-to-find navel oranges, ruby grapefruit, and familiar lemons and limes will work just fine in most citrus recipes. But if you see an unusual orange or lemon in your favorite produce store, buy one to experiment so you can decide for yourself if the subtle flavor differences appeal to you. For example, if you've never tasted a Meyer lemon, which is a cross between a regular lemon and a tangerine, you may like its thinner skin and slightly sweeter taste especially for desserts (but remember to add a little less sugar).
Here are some other ideas for cooking with citrus:
-- Lemon Risotto. One of my all time favorite dishes, this savory recipe has personality yet is soft and complex, a perfect match for almost any seafood.
-- Lemon Curd. While lemon curd can be bought by the jar (it's found with jams, jellies and preserves), it's expensive and to my palate, a bit too sweet in comparison to what we can make in our own kitchens. Smooth, yellow and pudding-like, lemon curd is easy to make by combining sugar, egg yolks, and fresh lemon juice in a saucepan, stirring until thickened, with unsalted butter added at the end. Curd can be made with any citrus juice (adjust the sugar since citrus varies in its sweetness) and used to fill a pastry tart; spread between layers of angel food cake or by the spoonful alongside a slice of pound cake; as a topping for toast or a soft, warm biscuit. When no one is watching, I just eat it by the spoonful. Warning: since its only ingredients are lemon juice, eggs, butter and sugar, lemon curd is seriously high in calories.
-- Grapefruit and Avocado Salad. This is a popular flavor combination and the tart, slightly bitter grapefruit nicely compliments the creamy avocado. A perfect winter salad.
-- Blood Orange Salad. Blood oranges, originally from Sicily, earn their name from the ruby red color of their flesh. Slices of these tangy oranges are a taste and visual match for peppery arugula and spicy thin rings of red onion.
Other of our citrus recipes include Carrot Lemon Soup, Grilled Fish with Citrus Vinaigrette, and Grilled Salmon with Lime Butter Sauce. Check your favorite cookbooks and recipe search engines for other citrus recipes such as lime meltaway cookies, lemony veal or chicken piccata, fresh fennel and orange salad, Greek-style lemon potatoes, candied grapefruit peels, lime sorbet, old fashioned broiled grapefruit halves, orange cake, tangerine sorbet, oranges poached in lime syrup, or compound butters with citrus zest and fresh herbs to melt on fish or steaks.
A final suggestion: There are two essential kitchen tools for working with any citrus. First, to remove zest from the fruit's rind use a Microplane rasper (a box grater is likely to take half of your knuckles along with the zest). And second, if you don't yet have one, a simple wooden reamer, which costs about $5, is my favorite tool for juicing any kind of citrus. It's efficient, inexpensive, takes up a fraction of the space of an electric or other hand juicer, and is a snap to clean.
Throughout the year, lemons are always in my refrigerator, as fundamental an ingredient as salt or olive oil. But in the winter, as the fruit bins fill with other beautiful citrus, I buy whatever looks interesting and figure out later what to do with them, happily anticipating their acidic taste.
Christopher Columbus is credited with bringing lemons to the New World in 1492, probably as a protection against rickets. We fortunately don't have to worry about that kind of survival, but when winter is at its least appetizing, we should be grateful to whomever brought us these vibrant winter fruits.