These days much of America is in deep freeze, heavy snow, frigid temps, or chilly rain. Unless you happen to live in the West Coast, Florida, Hawaii, or the Deep South, this can be one of the bleakest times in the produce sections of many grocery stores. When you just can’t face one more pale cabbage, wrinkled parsnip, or God-forsaken beet, you can take comfort in the piles of great citrus still adorning the fruit aisles. Succulent, juicy oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes, oh my! Not to mention scads of other citrus varieties, like mandarins, tangerines, tangelos, kumquats, citrons, pomelos, and the bizarre-looking yellow-fingered Buddha’s Hand (pictured below).
Citrus is one of the few plant families whose members easily interbreed (peppers are another); this makes it an enormous genus, with thousands of species and cultivars worldwide. Citrus are believed to have originated in tropical and subtropical Asia, where they’ve been cultivated since antiquity. Christopher Columbus brought citrus to North America in the early 1500s and oranges were introduced into Australia in 1788. By the mid-1800s, citrus was already a thriving commercial industry in both Florida and California, followed by Texas and Arizona in the early 1900s.
It is no secret, of course, that citrus fruits are high in vitamin C, but they also contain significant amounts of potassium, folate, calcium, thiamine, niacin, vitamin B6, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid. They are rich in phytonutrients, flavonoids, and other antioxidants that are believed to have considerable anticancer and anti-inflammatory properties; higher concentrations of these nutrients lie in the white parts of the peels and the membranes separating the sections. A single large orange contains about 87 calories, and half of a grapefruit has about 50; a whole lemon or lime contains only around 20 calories.
The season for commercially grown citrus is a long one, depending on the country of origin and variety. Lemons and limes are available all year; oranges are often at their best from January through March, and grapefruits from mid-October through April. At farmers markets and CSAs, availability will depend on the local growing season. The vast majority of the citrus sold in America is grown in California, Florida, Texas, and Arizona, but you may see fruit from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and China.
In spite of the huge range of citrus varieties, certain principles for choosing good specimens always apply. Fruits that are heavy for their size are a sure bet, signaling plenty of juice (lightweight fruits are often dry and mealy inside). Avoid fruit with obvious soft, bruised, or moldy areas.
With oranges, glossy, smoother skins usually indicate thinner peels and thus more juicy flesh. Coloration is tricky with oranges, which do not have to be orange to be sweet and delicious; in fact, oranges in many countries remain entirely green on the outside when they are fully ripe, thanks to how climate affects the green chlorophyll in the tree and its fruit. Because consumers in Europe and America associate green fruit with unripeness, some commercially grown oranges are dyed orange.
Lemons should be fully yellow, as green tinges indicate that they are not quite ripe. Limes should be uniformly green; a few brown spots are harmless, but avoid ones with large brownish areas, which may indicate flavor-altering scald. When selecting both lemons and limes, think about how you plan to use them. If you need them immediately, choose ones that are softer, even slightly shriveled, as they’ll be juicier. If you don’t need the fruits for several days (or if you want the oiliest, most pungent zest), choose harder ones with shiny, bumpier skins. The lemons or limes can sit for 3 to 5 days at room temperature; they’ll soften and build up their juice this way.
Grapefruit color varies depending on the variety; yellow types will be uniformly yellow, and pink or red-fleshed fruits should have as yellow skins as possible with slightly rosy blushes.
What Can You Do with Citrus?
- Lemons and limes are nature’s all-purpose seasoning; their zinginess enhances the flavors of all sorts of foods, from fish to vegetables to fruit. And be sure to use freshly squeezed juice—the commercial bottled stuff can be quite nasty!
- Key lime pie is that quintessential dessert of summer, made with little more than the juice of Key limes, egg yolks, and sweetened condensed milk, and topped with a meringue of whipped egg whites and sugar.
- Enjoy a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. If you are making juice mixtures or smoothies, throw the whole, washed citrus fruit into your Vitamix or other juicer to extract the nutritional goodness of the peels, flesh, and all.
- Grapefruit is surprisingly good broiled—and as a hot treat on a cold day. Sprinkle freshly cut halves with a little brown sugar, and set under an oven broiler for 3 to 5 minutes until the sugar browns and starts to caramelize. Yum!
- Perk up the flavor of vegetables, desserts, and fruits with a little finely grated zest from lemons, limes, oranges, or citron. A classic combo is fresh asparagus spears, sautéed or grilled, with a shower of lemon zest grated over them right before serving.
- Pickled or preserved lemons (pictured below, when stuffed with salt at the beginning of the pickling process) are a major condiment in many Middle Eastern, Indian, and North African cuisines. You can make your own with a brine of water, lemon juice, vinegar, salt, and spices. They are especially good with Moroccan tagines, with rice in Asian dishes, as part of a Cambodian chicken soup called ngam nguv, and in cocktails like Bloody Marys.
- Make preserves or marmalade. For the latter, Spanish Seville oranges are traditionally used; they are less sweet than navel or regular eating oranges, they have a high pectin content, and their peel imparts a distinctive, slightly bitter flavor.
- Citrus was made for refreshing beverages, both spiked and nonalcoholic. Think punches, snappy cocktails, smoothies, teas, homemade sodas, lemonades, limeades…
- Don’t throw away those orange, lemon, or lime peels—they are delicious candied or dried and used in desserts, drinks, salads, and as garnishes. Make sure, however, to use fruits that you know have not been sprayed with conventional pesticides or other toxic chemicals.
- Lime juice is ubiquitous in Mexican and South American cooking, where it is used to marinate raw fish in ceviche, combined with guacamole, sprinkled over a multitude of dishes along with chili powder, or as part of margaritas and other alcoholic drinks.
- Oranges and their juice are interesting additions to certain sauces and marinades made with ginger, honey, garlic, cumin, vinegar, hot chiles, and olive oil.
- Few things are as soothing for a bad cold as a good homemade chicken soup and a hot drink made with lemons and honey.
- A traditional Greek soup is avgolemono, made with eggs, chicken broth, lemon juice, and rice or orzo (a type of pasta that resembles rice).
You can also try these delicious recipes: Citrus Salad with Feta and Mint and Shrimp with Oranges, Black Rice, and Coconut Milk. And you can find more information on citrus and tasty recipes in Bounty from the Box: The CSA Farm Cookbook.
Picture credits, from top to bottom: Citrus slices, by Sergii Mostovyi, Adobe Stock; Buddha’s Hand, by Nicolette Wollentin, Adobe Stock; oranges, by Konstantin Sutyagin, Adobe Stock; and preserved lemons with salt, Moroccan-style, by Frank Bach, Dreamstime.