January 25, 2012

Citrus season: Time to practice tart arts

It's prime time for lemons, oranges, limes and grapefruits, so add a little sunshine to your cooking.

By MARY-LIZ SHAW, McClatchy Newspapers

How discontented would our winters be without the glorious summer promise of oranges, grapefruit, lemons and limes?

Citrus with food
click image to enlarge

Clementine slices cook on the bottom of this clementine cake, but the finished product is then inverted, showing off the candied citrus, and slices are topped with a dollop of cheesecake cream.

McClatchy Newspapers

It happens that these fruits come ripe in the dead of winter, and we crave their lively, sunny flavors during the dark, cold months. Limes, lemons and varieties of grapefruit and oranges, including the ruby-fleshed blood oranges, are abundant in stores now.

Our demand for citrus is so high that when Florida crops were threatened with freezing temperatures in early January, there was an immediate reaction from the orange juice futures market. No wonder: Florida accounts for about 40 percent of the world's supply of orange juice. Our demand is steady even though supplies are down. According to recent U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, current frozen orange juice concentrate stores are at 500 million pounds. There were 800 million pounds during the same period last year.

In California, which is the country's second largest citrus producer, the majority of the crop goes to the fresh produce market. Mandarins, such as the Cutie variety, have been gaining popularity year after year. More mandarins are being planted in California these days than any other kind of citrus tree, says Tracy L. Kahn, a botanist and curator of the Citrus Variety Collection at the University of California, Riverside.

Most of us think of the four biggies of citrus fruit, but Kahn oversees a collection of more than 1,000 citrus cultivars. Established in the early 1900s, the collection houses rare and common cultivars, which are used primarily for research. Sometimes that research requires a taste test or two. Or five.

"It's one of the perks of my job," Kahn says. She adds that it is "probably best if we don't go into all of my favorites. I have a lot of favorites." Lately she is partial to Seedless Kishu mandarins, which are ripe right now.

The Citrus Variety Collection is open for occasional public tours -- yes, visitors can sample the fruit -- and Kahn is busy planning a Citrus Day for Thursday, aimed at citrus growers, industry representatives and anyone else in the general public who is curious about the current state of citrus research.

In cooking, citrus fruits are versatile. Each component, rind, juice and pulp, can serve a different culinary purpose. Lemons and limes are popular in many cuisines, especially Italian, French, Spanish, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Moroccan and Turkish.

Citrus fruits balance sweetness and bitterness, providing depth of flavor to sweet and savory dishes.

Marc Bianchini, a chef and owner of the restaurant group that includes Osteria del Mondo in Milwaukee, Wis., which will reopen in a few months, observes that "fruits are very important in what I cook."

All good cooking should have the goal of balancing acids and fats, Bianchini says. Citrus juices provide acidity and can smooth out the richness of fats in both savory and sweet foods, he says.

The recipes we have selected to highlight citrus fruits -- a clementine cake, grapefruit curd tarts, lemon-thyme pork and shrimp ceviche -- are "perfect examples of what an acid (citrus) can do," Bianchini says. A stronger acid such as that from a grapefruit works well in a curd, while Clementine imparts "sweetness of the flesh and the perfume of the oils in the skin" to a moist cake, he says.

When making ceviches, the trick is to find the right acid for the fish. Lemon and lime work well with shrimp, Bianchini says; with more delicate fish, chefs will often use coconut milk to offset some of the citrus' acid.

Here are a few more interesting facts to consider when you next savor a juicy, sweet-tart navel orange at breakfast:

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