Thursday, January 24, 2013

Bring Home Sunshine: Citrus Primer

by Maria Noël Groves, Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Educator

Local fruit may be scarce this time of year, but seasonal citrus from warmer climates offers fresh flavor to help us refresh and slim down after the heaviness of holiday fare. Most citrus is at its peak *right now,* so stock up and enjoy!

Did you know that most of the citrus we eat – oranges, grapefruit, lemon, and limes – are actually varieties of the same species, Citrus sinensis? All citrus is loaded with the antioxidant powerhouse vitamin C as well as complementary bioflavanoids that help vitamin C work better in the body. Citrus lends a “degreasing” property to meals, helping you better digest fats. Freshly squeezed citrus – whether tart or sweet – immediately livens up the flavors in a dish with few calories added. Grate the zest (always use organic!) from the outer peel to flavor soups, dressings, marinades, and desserts. The bitterness of the peel primarily comes from the white pith, which is easily removed for recipes even though it’s loaded with healthy bioflavanoids.

The Co-op's exact selection of citrus varies day to day depending on what's available, prices, and quality; however, here's a primer on some of the common and specialty citrus you might find at the Co-op on a given day. Be sure to keep an eye out for good deals on bagged citrus!

Navel Oranges are the “gateway” citrus for most of us. Affordable, sweet, tasty, seedless, and usually easy-to-peel, navels are a simple snack or salad ingredient. They’re easily identified by their telltale navel belly buttons. Look for fruits that feel heavy (they’re juicier) and are completely orange without any greening of the skin, which indicates that they’re not fully ripe. Smaller navels generally taste better.

Valencia Oranges are prized by juicers. They’re loaded with seeds and are more difficult to peel, but they’re usually sweeter, more flavorful, and less expensive than navels. Use a good hand-juicer or throw them into a standard juicer after slicing off the peel: cut the ends off, then slowly slice down the strips off the side. Valencia peels may turn greenish in warm weather. Unlike navels, this usually indicates a sweeter, riper fruit.

Satsumas are one of the most delightful types of citrus, and the small fruits are worth the extra cost. Much like their relative mandarin oranges and clementines, satsumas are easy-to-peel, usually seedless, and super sweet. The flesh has a delightful a candy-like floral undertone. They’re delicious as a simple dessert of sections served alongside dark chocolate. Save some of your peels to dry and add to potpourri and tea. Look for fresh fruits with bright orange, plump peels that hasn’t gotten too mushy or hard – sure signs that they’ve been sitting on the shelf too long. Get a bunch. Even though they have a shorter shelf life, you can easily eat two to four in a sitting!

Clementines come in the big box, a classic for a quick snack. Easy-to-peel, seedless, sweet, and perfect for kids! Watch out for mushy and moldy fruits, though.

Blood Oranges are rich in anthocyanins, the red pigment that gives them their bloody hue and enhanced antioxidant properties. Blood oranges may have orange or red-tinged skin; red skin usually indicates redder flesh. The flesh can range from deep red throughout to tie-dyed orange and red. They’re slightly bitter and tend to be harder to peel. Serve them as slices or segments with the pith removed to show off their color in gourmet salads like arugula with manchego cheese, or as a dessert sprinkled with cinnamon. Try freshly squeezed blood orange juice as dressing for roasted beets and chèvre on mesclun greens. The blood orange season can extend all the way into May.

Tangelos are a hybrid, usually of tangerine and grapefruit, and they have vivid orange flesh with a knob on the end. They’re a bit larger, somewhat sweeter, and have just a few seeds.
Tangerines are smaller, deliciously sweet citrus that are usually easy to peel but may have a lot of seeds. The flavor tends to be brighter and less tart than other oranges.

Red Grapefruit is sweeter, pinker, and much more common than white grapefruit nowadays. The flesh is tart and somewhat sweet, but the white pith is very bitter. Squeeze some into seltzer water for a refreshing beverage (for a hint of bitterness, toss in the whole wedge). Slice it up as a snack after meals. If they’re too tart for you, drizzle with honey, or warm a bit and try maple syrup. Toss the fresh fruit or juice into avocado, salmon, chicken, and shrimp dishes or marinades.

Lemons provide classic tang for salad dressings and Italian dishes, especially when added just before serving. Bakers love to add the fresh juice and zest to recipes, too. Seek out Meyer lemons when available, which were made famous by gourmand Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. Meyers are a cross of lemon with  orange or mandarin. They’re sweeter with none of the bitterness of a standard lemon, and their tender, bright yellow peels can be eaten straight or candied. I enjoy eating fresh slices and also throw wedges of any kind of lemon into ginger tea with honey on cold, dreary days.

Limes, with their unique sour flavor and aromatic oils, are crucial for Mexican, Caribbean, and south Asian cuisine. The zest and fresh juice are used in meat marinades or added at the end of cooking to curries and soups for fresh flavor. They marry well with spearmint, cilantro, and coconut. Wedges are essential for mojitos and Mexican beer.

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