A Home Cooks Guide to Citrus
January 09, 2019
If we had to pick one family of fruit to take with us to a deserted island, it would probably be citrus. It’s far-fetched, we know, but just humor us and consider the fruits’ versatility. Having citrus on hand would give you a peel and eat snack, a plethora of drink options — especially if there’s sugar on the island — and the key ingredient for marmalades, chutneys, sauces, and vinaigrettes. Citrus would cook your fish, top your salads, flavor your cakes, and give your meringue a pie to decorate. Its bright, sunshiney colors would keep you optimistic through the long months; its vitamin C would keep you healthy.
Of course, you don’t have to be stranded on an island to experience the awesomeness of citrus. We grow a lot of it right here in Southern California, it’s in season — and our produce department is positively glowing with it. It’s a home cook’s paradise: you can pick just the right flavor of citrus for your snack, savory dish, dessert, or cocktail, from the delightfully bitter to the most lush and sweet, and everything in between.
Not sure how to parse out the differences? Here’s a guide to some of the citrus varieties we carry and how to apply them to your recipes. Our advice is to bring a few of each home. They’ll brighten up the kitchen, and you can have a side-by-side tasting with your friends and family — a fun, healthy food adventure.
Cara Cara Orange
A type of navel orange, the Cara Cara is seedless and very easy to peel. Its flesh is as pink as a ruby grapefruit, but it tastes more like a very complex tangerine: sweet, slightly tangy, with almost no pucker, and just a hint of red berries and rose petals. Cara Cara’s superpower is that it’s one of the more nutrient dense citrus fruits. It takes its pink hue from cancer- and heart-disease-fighting lycopene, and it’s full of vitamins A and C, potassium, and protein. Take that to your desert island!
Cara Caras are so scrumptious, they’re ideal for juicing or for peeling and eating whole. We also like them on a salad, where their complexity and sweetness pairs really well with earthy and bitter flavors — think beets, bitter greens, and walnuts in a bright Champagne vinegar dressing.
Did you know that Meyer lemons are not lemons at all, but a cross between a fragrant citron and a sweet pummelo/wild mandarin orange hybrid? That’s what makes them so juicy and aromatic. They smell like blossoms and honey, and they taste wonderful, as orange as they are lemon, and more sweet than puckery.
You can use Meyer lemons anywhere you would use ordinary lemons, but we think their juice is best where its complex, floral flavor can shine: drinks, like lemonade or lemon drop cocktails, fruit salads, cakes or lemon curds, or vinaigrettes. Their canary yellow skin is pretty delicate, so make sure you store them in the fridge rather than on the counter.
The mandarin is not one orange but a family of little oranges that includes satsumas, clementines, pixies, honeys, and tangerines. They are beloved for their intense sweet, tangy flavor — and for being the original snack fruit, portable and so easy to peel that you can get the skin off in one piece (or have fun trying!).
Mandarins are also super easy to segment, and because of that and their wee size, they’ve traditionally been added whole to salads, desserts, and dishes like the iconic mandarin-orange chicken. And we love their deep, orange tang in cocktails — if you haven’t already, you must try our tangerine margarita.
The kumquat is a tiny, oblong fruit, famous for being the only citrus you can eat whole — skin and all. It’s also inside out: the skin is sweet, and the flesh is puckery and sour.
Kumquats are particularly good in marmalade or chutney, and the latter is a perfect pairing with fatty meats like pork and roast duck. You could also serve kumquats raw on a dessert board with chocolate and cheese. And they’re sublime poached in sugar and spices and poured over ice cream.
True to their name, blood oranges are red. Not the rosy red of the cara cara, but a deep red that can vary in tone from orange with bright ruby veins to vivid, wine-like maroon to inky black-red. The rind, too, can have a crimson blush. All this wondrous color comes from anthocyanin, an antioxidant that reduces inflammation and helps fight off cancer and heart disease.
They have a distinctive flavor too, like a sweet orange crossed with a pleasantly tart raspberry. We like them raw — as a snack, on a salad, or the bright note in a salsa — or cooked into a spicy fruit compote. They’re also perfect at brunch: think about a tall glass of refreshing blood orange juice or a cocktail, like our sophisticated blood orange paloma.
We don’t snack on limes, they’re so high in acid, but their bitter-sweet juice and aromatic zest are so useful that we always have a lime or two in the refrigerator. It’s a true snout-to-tail fruit: The skin is zested into everything from rice pilaf to butter chicken, pan sauce, and cakes. And the juice flavors everything from limeades and gin and tonics to guacamole, chicken soup, vinaigrette, and key lime pie. It’s also squeezed over red snapper and shrimp to make ceviche; the juice is so acidic that it denatures or “cooks” the fish.
Lemons too are a kitchen staple — so much so, we don’t know what we’d do without them. Our cooking would certainly be ho-hum. Most of our lemons are bald because we use the zest all over the place. It’s fantastic microplaned over pasta, rainbow chard, or roasting meat. But we especially like it in lemony baked goods, where it adds depth to what could be a flat sweet-tart flavor. Of course, the juice is the ubiquitous puckery note in so many of our drinks, dishes, and desserts. And lately, we’ve taken to swirling a tiny bit of lemon juice through our dishes, just at the end; we find a little acid will finish the dish, pulling together all its other flavors.
The color of grapefruit ranges from white or yellow to pink and ruby red, and the flavor seems to follow the color — the pale fruit can be very acidic, even bitter, and the deep red fruit can be quite sweet. Like Cara Cara oranges, the grapefruit takes its color from lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that protects against heart disease, cancer, and sun damage.
Grapefruits are wonderful eaten whole at breakfast, either raw or broiled with a little brown sugar sprinkled on top. Once the bitter pith is cut away, the fruit is also fantastic (if very juicy) in salads and fruity salsas. But we like it best when its bitter-sweet flavor is mellowed with a little sugar. It’s magic in a marmalade, cocktail, or dessert — like slabs of grapefruit in ginger syrup, a citrusy crumb cake, or a bright sorbet.