The tart, sunny flavors of citrus are the cure to winter’s ills.
Loaded with Vitamin C, these brightly hued fruits grow on trees and shrubs and flourish in warmer climes. They are native to Southeast Asia but stateside, we find most of our citrus comes from Florida, California and Mexico. Oranges, lemons, limes, and (to a lesser extent) grapefruit see nearly daily usage in most households, but have you tried a big puffy pomelo, the intriguingly shaped citron (also known as Buddha’s Hand), or the ruby-fleshed blood orange? Tiny kumquats and finger limes can often be found at Asian markets and are worth seeking out.
These versatile fruits figure in nearly every global cuisine. Wrinkly kaffir limes and their leaves are used throughout Southeast Asia, while mandarin oranges are popular in Chinese cuisine. Limes and bitter oranges are favorites in Mexican and Central American cooking, and blood oranges and giant Sorrento lemons are culinary favorites in Italy. To find the best citrus fruits, they should be free of bruising and soft spots, and should feel heavy for their size, which indicates they are nice and juicy. Drier fruits weigh less.
Citrus juice and zest add a pop of bright, acidic flavor to any dish, and are highly versatile in your kitchen. When a split pea or lentil soup tastes a bit dull, it wants a bit of lemon juice to bring up the flavor rather than more salt. The same goes for a smoothie, where a squeeze of lime or orange can take your morning drink from blah to wow. I use citrus to bring balance to dishes. Sometimes they are the star of the show, and sometimes a back note, but they always make a dish better. More nuanced, more flavorful, and somehow lighter. Citrus is your culinary sleight of hand.
Serve up a zesty lemon pasta.
Spaghetti al Limone is one of the great gifts of the Italian kitchen, and it’s super easy to make. Take one good-sized lemon and grate the zest and reserve. Cut the fruit in half and squeeze out 2½ tablespoons and reserve. Take a medium saucepan and throw in 1 cup of heavy cream and all the lemon zest and cook, whisking as needed, until it simmers. Reduce heat and whisk in a stick of butter one tablespoon at a time to emulsify. Turn off heat and set aside. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil, then add in a pound of spaghetti (yes, you can sub in linguine or bucatini) and cook, stirring every so often until al dente. Reserve 2 cups of the pasta water and immediately drain pasta, which will cook a little more in the sauce. Pour drained pasta into the lemon cream and add a cup of the pasta water. Cook over low heat, slowly adding in a cup of grated parmesan little by little. Season to taste with freshly ground pepper and salt, if needed. Serve hot.
Toss up a Mediterranean-influenced salad.
One of my favorite flavor combinations is fennel and blood orange. I love a salad of thinly sliced fresh fennel, sections of blood orange, chopped Marcona almonds, some crumbled feta cheese, and a few Kalamata or oil-cured black olives, drizzled with olive oil, lemon juice and a touch of white wine vinegar. I’ll serve that on a bed of fresh arugula for color, toss on a handful of pomegranate seeds, and it’s a great addition to the holiday table.
Make a boozy infusion with Buddha’s Hand.
For those of you that love a citrus cocktail, this is a fun experiment. Rinse your Buddha’s Hand citron under cold water and wipe dry to get at any grit hiding between the “fingers” of the fruit. Slice off the fingers/tentacles and wipe again. Slice each finger in half the long way and put in a large airtight jar that can hold the fruit as it macerates in a full 750 ml bottle of vodka. Once the jar is filled with citrus and vodka, seal the jar and store in a dark spot, like a cupboard or even in the fridge if you have room. Shake the jar at least once a day and taste to check flavor and fragrance. It usually takes about a week. Then strain the vodka through a strainer lined with a coffee filter (or cheesecloth) to catch all solids. Pour infused vodka into a clean jar or bottle, cap it, and keep in the fridge because vodka is best served cold. It’s ready for your Lemon Drop!
Roast a chicken with plenty of lemon and garlic.
Preheat oven to 425F and set rack in the center. Cut a FULL head of garlic in half through the equator. Cut a lemon in half and take out seeds. Take a whole chicken (about 4 pounds) and rinse the cavity. Pat dry with paper toweling inside and out. Season all over (and in cavity) with lots of kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Put chicken breast-side up in a 12” cast-iron skillet and nestle the lemon and garlic, cut-side down, around it. Drizzle the chicken with 2 tablespoons each melted butter and extra-virgin olive oil and place in preheated oven. Check for doneness after 50 minutes. Chicken should be browned and juices should run clear if you test the leg meat. If not, back in the oven it goes and check it at five-minute intervals. Remove from oven and let cool for 10-15 minutes. Squeeze the roasted lemon over the top of the bird before carving. Squoosh the roasted garlic into the pan drippings and pour that over the carved bird and enjoy.
Candy some citrus peels.
Take a few organic citrus fruits – say three lemons, three limes and two oranges. Slice off the top and bottom of each fruit, then score the peels vertically into 4-6 sections, which helps to peel the fruit cleanly. Peel off rind segments. (This would be a great time to make a citrus salad or sangria since you’ll have plenty of pulp or make a big jar of citrus-ade.) Cut each citrus peel into ¼”-wide strips. Half fill a large pot with water and add all the citrus peel strips. Blanch them in water for 10 minutes, then drain in a colander and rinse. Discard water, refill pot and repeat process. This gets rid of all the bitterness in the peels. Now, put 2 cups each of water and of sugar in the pot and bring to a boil to dissolve sugar, then add in the citrus peels and reduce to a simmer. Cook for 45 minutes, stirring every so often, until peels turn translucent, and the liquid is syrupy. Remove from heat. Put a cup of sugar in a shallow bowl and remove citrus peels from pot using a slotted spoon to drain liquid. Toss in sugar a spoonful at a time, then remove to a mesh wire rack to cool. I put paper towel beneath the rack to catch any stray drips. Leave peels to cool and air dry, at least 24 hours. Once dry, store in a sealed container. Add to muffin and cake batters, garnish a cocktail, go crazy.
Try one of these tried-and-true recipes.
The internet is an infinite recipe resource, but how do you know which to trust? Not all recipes are created equal. Here are some I return to over and over that showcase citrus fruits in all their glory.
Claire Saffitz’ Blood Orange and Olive Oil Upside-Down Cake
Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill Ceviche
Smitten Kitchen’s Lime Curd Tart