Winter can seem bleak at the grocery store. Root vegetables and winter greens make great comfort foods, but they don’t have quite the same pizzazz as, say, a basket of homegrown tomatoes or a pint of sun-sweetened, local strawberries.
Try as it may, a parsnip just ain’t the same as a peach.
Thank goodness there’s an easy fix for the winter produce blues: Juicy, colorful citrus fruits.
The winter months are peak season for these sweet, sometimes tangy orbs, which bring a much-needed dose of sunshine to the table along with a healthful shot of vitamin C and other antioxidants.
From oranges and tangerines to grapefruit, lemons and limes – they’re all available in spades now through late spring, brightening the culinary landscape while tickling our taste buds. And don’t forget about those adorable little “cuties,” an easy-to-peel, super-sweet clementine orange that’s the perfect size for snacking.
Me? I’ve been eating bell-shaped minneolas, a type of tangelo, by the bagful to keep my spirits up and help fight off the common cold, sore throats and flu. Seriously, you can’t help but smile when you peel one of these beauties and its tart, citrus-y aroma (it’s a hybrid of the Duncan grapefruit and Darcy tangerine) fills the air.
It’s shaping up to be another good year for citrus, with the USDA forecasting some 103 million boxes (4.64 tons) of oranges out of Florida this season. California also should enjoy brisk sales, with some 50 million boxes of fruit expected to hit the market, including tangerines and cara cara oranges, a red-fleshed navel grown in the San Joaquin Valley that’s gaining in popularity.
Sweet and tangy, with notes of cranberry and cherry, these bright-orange hybrids are especially prized for their low acidity and lack of seeds.
While the navel orange is still king, other popular citrus fruits are blood oranges, Meyer lemons and green-skinned pummelos. Also known as Chinese grapefruit, these specialty fruits – the largest of all citrus fruits – can grow to the size of volleyballs. Aromatic and juicy, they’re a bit sweeter than traditional grapefruit.
This time of year is also when lemons and limes are at their juiciest; in summer they tend to be a little seedier. And don’t forget about red and white grapefruit, which are for so much more than breakfast. Grapefruit can be peeled and eaten out of hand just like an orange, or sectioned and added to salads, entrees and desserts. And its juice makes a puckery, sweet-sour cocktail mixer.
If you’re not particularly big on citrus, you might want to reconsider. According to the USDA, a healthy diet includes at least 1½ to 2 cups of fruit a day – or a quarter of what goes on your plate at each meal – and citrus is a budget-friendly way to get those goods in the body.
Not only does citrus help stave off flu and colds, says registered dietitian/nutrition coach Samantha Montgomery, but it’s also high in fiber, which helps you feel full (good for weight management) and aids with digestion. “And it’s really easy to take with you, and relatively easy to consume,” she adds. “If you’re out shopping or running about, you can grab an orange or a couple of cuties as you head out the door.”
Citrus also is incredibly versatile. Its juice can be used to marinate seafood for ceviche or brighten a dessert curd; it also can be sectioned and tossed into salads both savory and sweet; juiced into Latin-style soups and stews; blended into smoothies and salad dressings; and zested for baked goods.
The biggest nutritional benefits come from raw citrus, but it’s still pretty good for you tossed into a stir-fry (cooking it will make it sweeter) or baked or squeezed into a dessert. Using citrus juice and zest as flavoring also is a nice way to reduce sodium-related seasonings in many dishes, in that it adds a little extra zip naturally, “and you don’t need a ton of it,” says Montgomery.
How to buy it
When buying citrus, look for firm fruit with bright, colorful skin. While a few rough spots are OK, avoid citrus that feels soft or spongy or has cuts and bruises. You also want to steer clear if there’s any mold in the stem, or the skin looks dried out. Weight matters – the fruit should feel heavier than anticipated. Higher water content means it’ll be juicier.
If you plan on zesting the fruit (it’s most aromatic and flavorful when you first remove it, so use it quickly), make sure the peel is really clean and shiny, regardless of whether or not it’s organic. In addition to insecticides, some fruit is sprayed with color dyes and edible wax to slow the loss of moisture. Always wash it under warm running water, using just the friction of your fingers to scrub them clean.
Below, we offer some fresh ideas on cooking with vibrant winter citrus. It’s sure to brighten your mood and bring edible sunshine into the kitchen.
Keep in mind 1 lemon yields about 1 tablespoon of zest and 2 to 3 tablespoons of juice; a medium orange has twice that amount. An average lime has about 2 teaspoons of zest and 2 tablespoons of juice.
SOUR GRAPEFRUIT MARGARITA
1 lime, cut into wedges
1 cup fresh grapefruit juice (I used Ruby Reds)
½ cup fresh lime juice
¼ cup agave nectar
½ cup tequila
Scatter salt in a wide, shallow dish. Run a wedge of lime around rim of 2 glasses, then dip them in the salt mixture. Set aside.
In shaker, combine grapefruit juice, lime juice, agave and tequila. Drop a handful of ice cubes into the cup and shake well. Carefully strain and pour into prepared glasses. If desired, garnish with a slice of lime.
COOK’S NOTE: Simple syrup can substitute for agave nectar.
– “Healthy Latin Eating” by Angie Martinez and Angelo Sosa (Kyle, Jan. 2015, $22.95)
Makes about ¾ cup
1 large egg yolk
Large pinch kosher salt
2 tablespoons strained freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided
½ cup neutral-tasting olive oil
Combine egg yolk with salt and 1 teaspoon of lemon juice in small bowl. Whisking constantly, drizzle in oil very gradually. Whisk until mayonnaise is spreadable and all the oil has been added. Gradually whisk in more of the lemon juice until you have thin, slightly tart mayonnaise; you may not need all the juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Store in refrigerator, covered, until ready to use.
– “Blue Chair Cooks with Jam & Marmalade” by Rachel Saunders (Andrews McMeel, October 2014, $45)
Makes 2 750 ml bottles
10 to 12 organically grown lemons
750 milliliter bottle vodka
2½ cups water
1½ cups sugar
Wash lemons then use vegetable peeler to remove yellow zest of the peels. Store now-naked lemons is refrigerator to use juice in another recipe.
Put the lemon zest strips into a large, clean glass jar. Pour vodka over strips of lemon. Lemon should be completely submerged in vodka; push it down with a spoon if necessary. Cover jar and leave it at room temperature for 2 weeks. Shake jar every other day to redistribute the lemon peels.
After 2 weeks, liquid will have taken on a bright yellow color from the peels. Pour mixture through a strainer into a large bowl or pitcher. Discard peels.
Combine water and sugar in pot over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until sugar has dissolved into water to form a simple syrup. As soon as sugar has dissolved, remove pot from heat. Let syrup cool to room temperature.
Pour lemon-infused vodka into syrup and stir to combine. Pour limoncello through a funnel into 2 clean 750 ml glass bottles. Cap or cork tightly. Store bottles of limoncello in refrigerator or freezer. There’s still one ingredient left to add: patience. Wait at least 2 weeks, preferably a month, for flavors of limoncello to mix and mellow before serving.
– “Preserving Everything” by Leda Meredith (Countryman Press, 2014, $19.95)
14-ounce can coconut milk
½ cup superfine sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons cornstarch (I used 3)
Finely grate zest of 1 lemon and remove zest of another in wide strips using a vegetable peeler. Squeeze juice from all 4 of the lemons.
Place lemon juice, zest and zest strips in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan with coconut milk, sugar and cornstarch and whisk together until thoroughly combined. Bring to boil and then simmer uncovered for about 1 hour, stirring frequently, until mixture reduces and thickens.
Transfer curd to sterilized jars. Seal and store. Once opened, curd will keep in fridge for 2 weeks.
COOK’S NOTE: Lemon curd typically is made with butter and eggs, so this vegan recipe might seem strange. But it’s actually quite good.
Keep a careful eye on the cooking curd; my mind wandered, and it ended up turning a deep orange the first time I made it. Still ate it, of course, but it wasn’t as pretty as the pale-yellow second batch.
– “Keep it Vegan: Over 100 Simple, Healthy & Delicious Dishes” by Aine Carlin (Kyle, February 2015, $19.95)
ELEGANT CITRUS TART
Makes 1 tart
1/3 cup sweetened flaked coconut
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup powdered sugar
3/4 cup cold butter, cut into pieces
1/4 teaspoon coconut extract
Buttery Orange Curd (recipe follows)
9 assorted citrus fruits, peeled and sectioned
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake coconut in single layer in a shallow pan 4 to 5 minutes or until toasted and fragrant, stirring halfway through. Cool completely.
Pulse coconut, flour and powdered sugar in a food processor until combined. Add butter and coconut extract, and pulse 5 to 6 times or until crumbly. With processor running, gradually add 3 tablespoons water and process until dough forms a ball and leaves sides of bowl. (I used whole-wheat flour, and had to add about 2 tablespoons more water.)
Roll dough into a 12½-by-8-inch rectangle (about ¼-inch thick) on a lightly floured surface. (I used a circular pan so rolled it into a circle.) Press on bottom and up sides of a 12-by-9-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Trim excess and discard.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Cool completely on wire rack.
Spread Buttery Orange Curd over crust. Top with citrus sections. Voila!
– “Southern Living: No Taste Like Home” by Kelly Alexander (Oxmoor House, $27.95)
BUTTERY ORANGE CURD
Makes about 2 cups
2/3 cup sugar
2½ tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/3 cups orange juice
1 large egg, slightly beaten
3 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons orange zest
Pinch table salt
Combine sugar and cornstarch in a 3-quart saucepan. Gradually whisk in orange juice. Whisk in egg. Bring to a boil. Boil, whisking constantly, for 3 to 4 minutes.
Remove from heat. Whisk in butter, zest and salt. Place heavy-duty plastic wrap directly on curd (to prevent a film from forming). Chill 8 hours. Store leftovers in fridge for up to 3 days.
SHRIMP & AVOCADO CEVICHE WITH LIME CREMA
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled, deveined and split in half
¼ cup fresh orange juice
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons Mexican crema
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
½ ripe avocado, peeled and cut into chunks
2 teaspoons diced red onion
1 teaspoon chopped jalapeño
Put bowl of ice nearby. In medium pot, bring 6 cups water to a boil. Drop in shrimp and cook only until they just begin to turn pink, about 15 seconds. Do not overcook. Remove from heat, drain and chill the shrimp on ice.
In small bowl, combine the orange, lime and lemon juices with the sugar, salt, crema and ginger. Mix well and pour over shrimp. Chill for 15 minutes. Just before serving, gently toss in the avocado, onion and jalapeño.
COOK’S NOTE: This dish is pretty served in a wide-rimmed champagne glass.
– “Healthy Latin Eating” by Angie Martinez and Angelo Sosa (Kyle, January 2015, $22.95)
WHEAT BERRY, BABY KALE, GRAPE AND ORANGE SALAD
2 cups wheat berries
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup golden balsamic vinegar
Zest 1 orange
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
2 teaspoons agave nectar
1½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon curry powder
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Pinch of ground ginger
Freshly ground black pepper
5 ounces baby kale or baby spinach
1 cup seedless red grapes
1 cup seedless green grapes
2 oranges, segmented
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup raw, unsalted walnuts, toasted and chopped
Make wheat berries: Rinse them and put them in medium pot with 6 cups water and salt. Bring to boil and then reduce to simmer. Cook, covered, 1 hour, until wheat berries are just tender. Add a few cups cold water to pot; stir and then strain. Place wheat berries in a very large bowl to cool, stirring occasionally.
Make vinaigrette: Combine oil, vinegar, zest, juice, agave, mustard, salt, curry powder, cayenne, ginger and pepper in a small jar. Seal lid tightly and shake vigorously to combine. Set aside at room temperature.
Make salad: Combine cooled wheat berries with kale or spinach in a large bowl. Toss with ½ cup of dressing. Add grapes and orange segments and another ¼ cup dressing and toss again. Add more dressing if desired and season with salt and pepper. Toss in walnuts right before serving.
COOK’S NOTE: I’m not so much into health food (admit it – wheat berries, which are the whole-grain form of wheat, fall into that category) but this recipe was kind of terrific. Sweet and nutty, with a wonderfully chewy texture, the rice-like kernels marry perfectly with sweet oranges and grapes. I never bought into last year’s kale crazy (hate the stuff) so substitute baby spinach. Go easy on the vinaigrette – it packs a punch.
– “Straight from the Earth” by Myra Goodman and Marea Goodman (Chronicle, 2014, $27.50)
CRISPY ORANGE BEEF
1½ pounds sirloin steak tips, trimmed
3 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
6 tablespoons cornstarch
10 3-inch strips orange peel, sliced thin lengthwise (¼ cup), plus ½ cup juice (2 oranges)
3 tablespoons molasses
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1½ teaspoons roasted sesame oil
3 cups vegetable oil
1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded and sliced thin lengthwise
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 scallions, sliced thin on bias
Cut beef with grain into 2- to 3-inch-wide pieces. Slice each piece against grain into ½-inch-thick slices. Cut each slice lengthwise into ½-inch-wide strips. Toss beef with 1 tablespoon soy sauce in bowl. Add cornstarch and toss until evenly coated. Spread beef in single layer on wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet. Put sheet in freezer until meat is very firm but not completely frozen, about 45 minutes.
Whisk orange juice, molasses, sherry, vinegar, sesame oil and remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce together in bowl.
Line second rimmed baking sheet with triple layer of paper towels. Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat until oil registers 375 degrees. Carefully add 1/3 of beef and fry, stirring occasionally to keep beef from sticking, until golden brown, about 1½ minutes. Using wire-mesh skimmer, transfer meat to paper towel-lined sheet. Return oil to 375 degrees and repeat with remaining beef. After frying, reserve 2 tablespoons frying oil.
Heat reserved oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add orange peel and jalapeño and cook, stirring occasionally, until about half of orange peel is golden brown, 1½ to 2 minutes. Add ginger, garlic and pepper flakes; cook, stirring frequently, until garlic begins to brown, about 45 seconds. Add soy sauce mixture and cook, scraping up any brown bits, until slightly thickened, about 45 seconds. Add beef and scallions and toss. Serve immediately.
COOK’S NOTE: Slightly freezing the meat strips made them fry up crisp and crunchy, while still staying tender inside.
– “Cook’s Illustrated Meat Book” (America’s Test Kitchen, 2014, $40)