You could say that citrus is sunshine converted to flavor. The bright sweet-sour tang and fresh scent of each variety is like reveille for your taste buds. No other taste in nature offers the same balance of deliciousness and healthfulness.
Slit open a fruit and take a bite. Along with sweetness, you're infusing your body with vitamin C, potassium and other vital nutrients that work to keep everything in good repair, helping you defend against winter colds and flu bugs.
Citrus is arguably the world's best-loved and most versatile flavor. People have been cultivating trees since at least 1300 B.C.E., and in the 3,000 years since, the fruits have made their way into virtually every nation's cooking. They put lime in chicken dishes in Peru and Thailand, lemon in cookies in Italy and Scandinavia, and Americans have endless ways to use everything from blood oranges to clementines.
Their versatility stems from the fact that citrus offers three ingredients in one: fruit, delightful in salads, salsas, and relishes; juice, lending its tartness and mild flavor to everything from fish to green beans; and zest, the colored part of the rind, offering tantalizing and assertive flavor everywhere it's used.
Citrus Choices Explode
Not so long ago, the produce aisle offered just a few basic citrus varieties and a season mostly confined to winter. Now there are dozens of varieties, and thanks to imports and American growers, fruits are available year-round.
- Navel and Valencia orange are still the most frequently found oranges, but in recent years new varieties such as pink-fleshed Cara Cara and dark red-fleshed Moro, or blood, oranges have begun to appear in stores.
- Eureka and Lisbon lemons have been joined on a limited basis by Meyer lemons, a sweeter, milder cross between a lemon and an orange or mandarin.
- New limes have appeared as well, with flavor-packed Key and Mexican limes joining familiar Persian limes in the produce aisle.
- Another popular citrus is the clementine, or Mandarin. There are many varieties of these small, sweet, easy-peeling fruits with names such as tangor or satsuma, as well as close relatives like tangerines and Minneolas, a cross between a grapefruit and a tangerine.
- Other exotic citrus choices include the pummelo, a thick-skinned ancestor of the grapefruit, and the small, bumpy, but very flavorful kaffir lime, a staple of Thai cooking.
The wide variety and 12-month availability are good news for your health because citrus fruits support your body in lots of ways says Susan Waltrip-Buck, registered dietitian at the Hy-Vee in Peoria, Illinois.
Citrus offers a host of nutrients besides vitamin C. There are folates and potassium, which help maintain healthy blood pressure. Citrus also offers vitamin A and fiber, plus other phytonutrients that work together and may help keep your immune system healthy, reduce your risk of colon cancer, may help reduce asthma symptoms and osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis and even prevent plaque buildup on artery walls.
Scientific evidence continues to build that you have to eat the fruit to get the benefit. “Vitamin C tablets are good,” says Susan, “but whenever you eat food, it’s going to be better for you than taking a pill.”
The government recommends eating five servings of fruits a day—one medium orange or half a grapefruit is considered a serving. All citrus fruits have similar amounts of vitamins. Oranges claim the highest amount of C at 70 mg, about 117 percent of your suggested daily intake in a medium orange, followed by lemons and clementines.
It’s not hard to get the servings you need when you consider how many delicious ways there are to use citrus.
Cooking with Citrus
Recipes with citrus generally rely on either the zest or the juice to add flavor. Juice, providing tang and sweetness plus mild citrus flavor, is delicious with fish, shellfish, chicken, pork and lamb, and vegetables such as Brussels sprouts and spinach. To extract the most juice, microwave fruit a few seconds just until warm and roll on the counter under your hand. There are countless varieties of juicing tools. A handheld wooden reamer is the least expensive and easiest to store, but other tools work equally well.
For maximum citrus flavor, use the colored part of the peel called the zest. You want to avoid the white pith, which turns bitter when cooked. A vegetable peeler does a good job if you use a light hand, but a zester or a zester-grater is foolproof and produces ready-to-use zest. Handheld zesters cost between $3 and $15 and are found with others kitchen utensils at your local Hy-Vee.
Types of Citrus
Navel Orange: Great in salads, but can turn bitter when cooked or allowed to stand. Use zest when milder flavor is needed. Keeps: 4 to 5 days on counter, 2 weeks in fridge.
Grapefruit: Strong flavor, new varieties are sweeter. Segments can be added to salads or grilled with kabobs. Keeps: 4 to 5 days on counter, 3 weeks in fridge.
Pummelo: Mild grapefruit flavor, sweet and easy to peel. Usually eaten by themselves or sectioned in salads, wraps, salsas or other dishes needing a quick pop of bright flavor. Keeps: 1 week on counter, 2 weeks in fridge.
Lemons: Zingy with a fresh tang, it goes well with chicken, beef, pork, vegetables and fish. Use zest in baked goods. Keeps: up to 2 weeks in the fridge.
Moro or Blood Orange: Deep crimson in color, it has intense bright orange flavor with a hint of raspberry or strawberry. Juice makes striking drinks, and flesh can be substituted for Valencia oranges. Pairs well with fennel. Keeps: 3 to 4 days on counter, 2 weeks in fridge.
Lime: The most sour of all the citruses, it wakes up the flavor of chicken, fish, pork and vegetables. Splash on tropical fruit or avocados. Toss zest with blueberries, into plain pasta with herbs, or sprinkle zest over food as it comes off the grill. Keeps: 6 to 8 weeks in the fridge.
Clementine or Mandarin: Among the sweetest citrus, sprinkle zest over salads or into chocolate cake batter. Goes well with poultry and seafood. A kids’ favorite, clementines are easy to peel. Keeps: 3 days on counter, 2 weeks in fridge.
Cara Cara Orange: An exceptionally sweet red-fleshed naval orange, it's low in acid. Complex flavor with notes of cherry, rose petal and blackberry. Juice is sweet, with a tangy zing that works well in drinks. Use segments and zest in salads, goes well with fish. Keeps: 3 to 4 days on counter, 2 weeks in fridge.
Zesting, Peeling and Segmenting
Whether you’re zesting the rind, peeling fruit for eating or cutting it into segments, there’s a technique that makes it easier.
Zesting: The zest or outermost colored layer of citrus is full of intense flavor and can be used in many ways. Before zesting, scrub the fruit with soapy water, rinse and dry. Using a microplane, traditional zester or vegetable peeler, carefully remove the zest without removing any of the bitter pith. Chop large pieces before using.
Cutting/Removing Rind: Cut off the top and bottom of the fruit. Then carefully remove segments of the rind and pith, using short swift sawing motions to follow the curve of the fruit. Once the rind is removed, carefully cut between the segments, removing the inner pith. Or, cut off the top and bottom, score the fruit in segments, then peel the rind.
Segmenting: Run a paring knife or a grapefruit knife (slightly curved at the tip) around the outer circle, cutting the fruit away from the rind. Then cut each segment away from the inner pith. Remove segments with the tip of the knife, if desired.
Source: Hy-Vee Seasons Health 2013.